Category Archives: Parenting

I didn’t need another dad

Jim2aI didn’t need another dad. My dad died when I was 15, and I mourned that loss for years. By the time I was in college, I was doing okay–at least I said so to anyone who asked–and didn’t want another dad. One stepdad had moved in and then out of our lives, and it wasn’t the best experience for anyone concerned. That confirmed that I had been right: I didn’t need another dad.

Married, done with college, another stepdad entered the scene, and I was determined not to like his imposition into our family. But I saw how much he loved my mom, and how he took my teenage sister under his wing. She really needed a firm hand during her rebellious years, and he did a great job. He might be okay for them, I decided. But me, I’m out of the picture.

A couple more years went by, and I was pregnant with our first child. Suddenly, with pre-term labor at 30 weeks, I was on bed rest. And the stepdad (who I didn’t need) came to stay with us, to bring me lunch as I lay like a beached whale on the couch. He painted, set up the baby’s room, puttered around in the yard, and made sure I had plenty to eat and drink. I could see how well he might fit into our family.

Then when our son was born, there was Jim, video camera rolling, as proud as if our son was his very own flesh and blood. And as each child was born, there he was again, beaming. He’d already had his own grandchildren, but he was pretty thrilled with the crop of step-grandchildren he was getting from my sisters and me. So maybe he was going to fit in pretty well.

We moved a lot as a young family, and there were my mom and step dad, visiting, playing with the children. Jim and my husband undertook several remodeling projects wherever we lived. He brought a crowbar and hammer and loved every minute. And my husband felt pretty sure he could use a father-in-law like that.

High school and college graduations, and a wedding in our family, would find Jim beaming again, photographing every minute, the happiest grandpa in the room.

Thirty years later, we all gathered to wish Jim a happy 90th birthday. And suddenly I realized that I had needed a dad all along. He had been there, with a hug and a kiss, ready for adventure with the kids, for remodeling with my husband, for a raucous game of cards every evening, with a strong shoulder to lean on in joy or pain. He had been there all along, strong and steady.

He had been the only grandpa our children remembered. He had been the dad my teenage sister needed, and he did it well. He had been a dad to my older sister and me, in ways we didn’t anticipate. He was a father-in-law to Kyle, who loved thinking through home improvement projects while wandering with him through the Home Depot. He’d been our dad.

And on his 90th birthday, with all the family gathered together, we found that we were losing him. He was slipping away. I was able to tell him how much he meant to me, to my husband, to our children, and to thank him for every loving thing he did for us. We were thankful that he heard us and responded with a hug, a hand squeeze, a little pat on the arm. We moved him into hospice at home and said goodbye to him, one child and grandchild at a time. What a miraculous gift, that most of us could gather together at the right moment.

I realized why I hadn’t wanted another dad. The pain of losing my own father was so great, it left a huge hole in my heart. No attachment to another dad meant no more great holes in my heart. But Jim snuck in there anyway. And I realized, in spite of myself, that the memory of all those loving years was even worth this sharp, momentary pain of loss right now. We are all the more rich now, because he was our dad. Our grandpa and father-in-law. Mom’s husband.

I love you, Jim. Thanks for being my dad.

James Eitel: husband, father, stepfather, grandpa. 1926-2016

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Engage the culture: study the news

9-11On 9/11 all of America watched with a mixture of horror, outrage, and deep sadness the events that unfolded. My husband was stuck in another city on a business trip and could not get home because all flights were cancelled. We were just glad to be able to talk to one another on the phone, all of us safely on the ground on that dreadful day.

That evening I took the children to a restaurant so they could order whatever they wanted and we could talk together. “Are we at war?” “Who would do this to us?” “How many people were in those buildings?” “Are we safe here?” The questions rose up hard and fast, and they looked to me for answers. I had none, and no one else did that evening. We watched with rapt attention as President Bush addressed the nation. As much as we could, we kept up with the events that unfolded.

Suddenly my children were tuned in to world events like never before. We read what we could find, watched the news, and discussed it whenever we could, while driving in the car or sitting at the dinner table. We all became much more conscious of the world around us.

Sadly, I notice how little attention many families pay to what goes on in the world–especially homeschool families.  Some have no TV. Many do not read the paper or news magazines nor surf the web for news. How do I know this? I have talked with many homeschool families over the years and have found that they avoid world news.DADREADINGSON

I will not attempt to argue about the reasons that many families avoid the news–the reasons vary. However, I do take issue with the fact that Christian families–and particularly homeschooling Christian families–do not read about or watch the events that unfold around them.

When the culture begins to shift and ideas start to clash, who wins? When there is a power vacuum, what fills the void? The answers are obvious: the strongest power fills the void and overcomes the weakest. How will Christians react when they do not know what’s going on in the world? Can they afford to continue hiding away from events? Can they ever hope to shape the culture if they are not engaged in it?

The reasons we study history are clear: we need to see what men and ideas have shaped events. We learn what philosophies have impacted the movements and evolutions around the globe. Yet we stop our studies when it comes to what’s going on today?

Perceptive students will read the philosophers and historians who describe the “isms”–the ideas (like communism, socialism, feminism, existentialism, nihilism, etc.) that have shifted and changed events. They study Darwin, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and others whose works declared (or implied) that God is dead. These same students learn about the rise of socialism and the ideas that gave rise to communism.

And yet–contrary to logic–these same students have no idea of what is going on in their world today. Hello! Those astute students and their families could tie a beautiful bow on their biblical worldview studies simply by connecting the philosophies of the past with what they see in the world today! Those issues of ObamaCare, of “spreading the wealth around,” of Common Core implementation, or Progressivism–they all come from ideas promulgated centuries ago.

I have witnessed the effects of the lack of knowledge of current events in the classrooms in which I taught. Students who mixed their study of history and philosophy with the careful observation of current events were much better able to carry on a lively discussion, melding the two beautifully and noting how events of many decades ago have come full circle back into society and government today–just with different labels. Those who do not watch TV or read the news cannot participate so easily.

A part of one verse from the Bible is often quoted by Christians who urge their brothers and sisters to study the world around them: “Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do…” (1 Chronicles 12:32). The greater context of this passage is a listing of men who came over to David’s side to battle and defeat King Saul. Every generation needs men and women such as Issachar: people who know the times, who astutely observe what’s going on around them and who can lend their wisdom to the decision-makers and the leaders in this world.

Charles Martel watched the culture and the events around him, in the early Middle Ages, the 8th century AD. He saw an evil influence marching his way. Islamic invaders were spreading across Western Europe, conquering territories and threatening the Christian world. Martel rallied his forces and stood fast, stopping the invasion and (in a simplistic nutshell) keeping Western Europe from becoming Islamic.

bonhoeffer2Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor in Germany, noted what was going on in his world. He saw the evil of Hitler’s reign, saw Jews being rounded up and sent to concentration camps, saw Hitler’s quest for a master race that would conquer the world. He went to America in 1939 but regretted having left his homeland. He wrote,

“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.” (Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Eine Biographie, p736)

He returned to Germany and sided with those who tried to defeat Hitler. He was imprisoned and hanged just days before Germany was defeated.

Sticking your heads in the sand–not watching current events unfold–leaves you vulnerable. (It also leaves your hind end sticking up to get wallopped.) Christians, start becoming students of history AND of current events!

Does your child need to see everything that goes on in the news? Of course not–that’s not what I am arguing. However, as he gets older, he needs to be able to handle the reality of the world in which he is living. Have you protected him from the world by isolating him from current events? No–you have left him unable to engage the culture.

Christian parents, raise your children to be men and women of Issachar. Teach them (or find people who will teach from their fount of wisdom) how to connect the ideas and movements of history to what goes on today. Talk with them about the truth, and about where truth is sadly lacking. Help them and watch them form opinions about events. Sit with them at dinner, walk with them, pray with them, and show them how they can be shapers and engagers of the culture, rather than ostriches who hide their heads and leave their backsides vulnerable.

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The Perfect Parenting guidelines…do not exist

harried momAn old friend likes to say, “I was the perfect parent–until I started having children.”

You know the story. The idealistic 20-something sees children acting up in the grocery store and thinks to herself, “I will never let my children act like that.” And then, as if to mock her own words, her children became THOSE children.

The one guarantee I can share with you is that there is no guarantee–no manual for raising the perfect child. It does not exist. Why? Because the perfect child does not exist. He’s just a myth.

I read them: Those books about raising children. Meant to give you the formula for The Perfect Child, those books only deepen the guilt.

I read them, looked at my own children, and the guilt deepened. I must be doing it all wrong. My children not only opposed those perfect parenting formulas, they stomped, shredded, chewed, hit one another with, and tore into little bits those guilt-inducing instructional books.fighting children

And my guilt grew exponentially. This is all my fault. What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I do this better? Make me a solid list of rules I can follow so these children can become perfect (and so I, by association, can become the Perfect Parent). No such list ever appeared. But boy, the publishing houses have tried!

And then I encountered grace. While I was so bent on following the law, I failed to see the truth of grace: that I could never do it right. That they would never become perfect. That every day, in every way, we all fail. And at that moment of realization, law in all its sternness became balanced with grace in all its sweetness.

That I can never match up to the obligations of the law is abundantly clear. In his essay “The Chronicle of an Undeception,” Michael Bauman says, “The tragic vision of life arises from the fact that we are flawed—deeply, desperately, tragically flawed—and we cannot be trusted. We are broken at the soul; our defect is life wide and heart deep.” I am in desperate need of One whose perfection can fill all those empty places of failure.

And what I so desperately needed to teach my children was that they, too, were flawed and needed the sweet sacrifice of a Savior to cancel all that. Once I–and my children–can learn, really internalize, that truth, then redemption can take place.

You see, I was trying to impose a set of laws on myself and on my family, and by sheer force of will make them abide by these rules, these formulas.

But what all those parenting books never told me was the ugly truth. Sets of rules imposed upon sinners won’t save them from their sins. The rules (or laws) only deepen the sense of failure, as the book of Romans so beautifully tells us.

What I need, and what my children need, is the truth of the gospel, taught daily. Only then can we be free from the guilt, the shame, the failure.

Did I then become the Perfect Parent? Not at all. I still fail, and I continue to fail, and so do my children. But at least now I know why I have failed and how to address it. I rest my failures at the foot of the cross, thank my Savior for covering me with His redeeming grace, and live to fail another day. Where that thought may have discouraged me mightily 10, 15, 20 years ago, now I can smile, because I know I am forgiven, covered, and guilt-free.

Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord! (See Romans 7: 1-25)

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Homeschooling Momma Bears

mama bear

What are you teaching your children?

I called the home of a student I had been tutoring to tell the parents that their son had plagiarized his paper. Never entering into these conversations lightly, first I do my most careful work to document the offense and make certain of my accusation. I hate this kind of conversation, but it is necessary. Yes, even homeschooled children sin.

I asked for a meeting with the parents and the student so that we could look at the work together and talk about a plan for getting him back on the right track. After a pause, the mother said, “I have to tell you I am really angry right now.”

“I understand,” I began. “I have teenagers myself–”

She cut me off. “No, you don’t understand. I am so angry at you right now, it’s a good thing we are not talking face to face.” Shocked, I took a few seconds to respond. We agreed that waiting a couple of days to before we met would be a good idea.

Mom and Dad came with their son, an eleventh grader. I won’t go into detail, but I will tell you that she was furious that I would accuse her son of plagiarism. When I showed her the bald facts, she still protested. “No one cares about plagiarism. It doesn’t really matter these days,” she argued. “It’s just another way to use research.” Even her husband looked sideways at her. What was she teaching her son at that moment?

It is admirable that a mom wants to go to bat for her son, no matter what. But there comes a time when reality dictates that the child must take responsibility for his own actions, and the parent must let those consequences take effect. This mom wanted to protest everything, including giving her son a zero on the assignment without the chance of making it up. When I told her that colleges will toss out a student who plagiarizes, she finally sat still. I have heard of Masters degree candidates who are summarily kicked out, unable to continue at any other college because of the blackened reputation they now had for the plagiarism on their record. And we could talk about the authors and journalists whose reputations have been ruined when their plagiarisms were revealed. That is reality.

I suspect–though I never had another conversation with that mother–that she was so wrapped up in her son’s schooling, mama bear with babiesshe took great offense at anything negative said about his work. I suspect that she took it very personally.

Being a momma bear is not a bad thing. Every child needs someone to be their best advocate. However, momma bears must know their limits, and they must realize that they are always teaching their children, in the words they choose, their attitudes toward others, and in the way they deal with failures and successes.

So I have some helpful advice for those momma bears out there–and you know who you are.

Help your child to own his responsibilities and his mistakes. Be realistic about the fact that  you are the parent of a sinner who needs your instruction and loving guidance. You will do him no service by covering up, excusing, masking, or downplaying his slip-ups. When will he learn from his mistakes, if it cannot be under your roof? Better that the plagiarism happened to my student at age 16 and under his parents’ authority, than while he is at college where his record could have been permanently affected. Or perhaps when he is on a job and falsifies or plagiarizes a report, and gets fired. Use that opportunity to discipline, correct, and point him in the right direction.

Be your child’s best advocate. Fight for the very best for her. Don’t settle for less. Investigate the options and be ready to change gears if something is not working. However, remain consistent with your child. I know a family who used three different math programs in one year because their child couldn’t “get” the math. That set the child behind considerably, and it took them a couple of years to catch up.

Be realistic about your expectations. Set attainable goals each year, or perhaps each semester. Review your goals. Set long-term ones as well, so that you know where you are aiming from year to year. Those long-term goals become more and more important the older your child gets. And by high school, your child needs to own those goals himself. If he does not, you both may be in for a load of trouble each year you try to homeschool him in high school.

Realize you cannot do everything, so instead do a few things well. The older your child gets, the more important this becomes. Over-committing your child to all sorts of seemingly good activities may look like fun at first, but it will only complicate your high school student’s life as he tries to study the basics and manage a half-dozen extra activities. Choose carefully, allow him time for studying, and give him time off to breathe. You do not need to fill all of his moments; help him to find a healthy balance of study and activities. This is especially important in high school when you must give him his basics plus an elective, build in time to study, and provide opportunities to serve others or develop leadership skills or sports. There isn’t a lot of time for all the extras you used to do when he was younger. This will teach him balance and perspective.

At some things your child might not be a shining star. Be okay with that, but continue to push for excellence when reasonable. Not every child is gifted in every area. Each child has his own special talents and gifts. If your child is only average academically, that’s fine. Encourage him to do it well and to learn how to work hard. Help him through some of the disappointments, and point him toward those things in which he does excel. Reality parenting means acknowledging the situation.

Don’t cheat your child by inflating her abilities. If your child is earning a low grade, leave it at that. One mom asked me, “If the tutor I hired gives my [high school] child a C, can I inflate that if I think she put forth good effort?” As the homeschool parent you are free to put whatever grade you want on your child’s transcript. However. Just ask yourself if the C was an honest representation of your child’s actual work. How would your child benefit from your inflation of that grade? Sure, she might get into that college, but based on whose grades and on what work? Does her SAT score reflect the C or the inflated grade? And have you done your child a disservice by falsifying what was the actual grade? Finally, what lesson did you just teach your child when you inflated her grade?

When you hire a professional tutor/teacher, seek excellence. Use your money wisely. Find someone with a reputation for excellence. Ask to see samples of the syllabus he or she has given students before. Look up reviews of the textbook he or she will use. If you are using an organization to teach your child, examine the organization’s reputation. Read reviews online if they are available. Talk with other parents who have used that organization, if you can.

Be firm. Be ready to accept tears and pouting faces on occasion. Work done well is often difficult, and the process can be painful or unpleasant at times. Schoolwork is not always sunshine and roses. The outcome, though, can be satisfaction of a job well done. Remember, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).

I contacted the parent of a student who was barely passing my class, and with just three or four weeks of class left, I wanted to make sure we were doing everything we could to help this student to finish well. “That’s okay,” said the mom. “I’m pulling my child out of your class.” With three or four weeks left of class? “We want people to build strong character qualities into our children, and that is more important than a letter grade,” she said.

Is this an either/or situation, either you get character or grades? How about building character through the application of hard work? What about the lessons the parents taught their child by pulling him out of a class instead of allowing him to press on through the difficult circumstances into which he had gotten? What about finishing the job well, running the race to its completion, all of that? What about the character qualities of persistence and strong work ethic?

Be aware of what you are teaching your children, through those things you DO and what you AVOID doing. Both can send a very strong message to your child. And you know he is watching.

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Homeschool: Plan the High School Career

graduateIn my years of advising and teaching, I have met some parents who seemed to be surprised that they had older teenagers who actually needed to finish high school with enough credits to enter college.

However, for as many poor planners I have met, I have encountered just as many parents who deliberately plotted out their students’ high school paths so that they would be ready for college.

It’s important to set out your student’s junior high and high school years, to know what is required for graduation in your state and for entrance to college. Some high schoolers do not intend to go to college, but isn’t it wise to aim them there, in case they change their minds? Better to be prepared than caught off guard.

Check with your state’s requirements for graduation. As a homeschool parent you should know these things, since your state may require reporting of you each year they are homeschooled. Go to HSLDA to find your state’s requirements.

Plan out those six years

While a transcript only needs to report the four years of high school, it’s best to start planning in junior high or earlier so that you know what to expect. Plot out the progression of math, science, English, history, and foreign language you want him to take. Carefully regard what is considered high school versus junior high curriculum.

For instance, Physical Science and General Science are not considered high school courses; they are for junior high. Colleges want to see high school science courses (some with labs) on the transcript. Those would be Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Anatomy & Physiology, and so forth. Plan accordingly.

Math, too, must be dealt with carefully. A transcript should show an upward progress in Math. Algebra 1, for example, is a junior high class, so make sure your student is aimed toward Algebra 1 then, not in high school.

On the reverse side, some parents want to give their children high school classes while in junior high. Be careful with this. You can cover some high school subjects earlier, such as Math, if your student has an aptitude for it. But there are some subjects, like science, English, and history, that require maturity in all areas of thinking and are therefore ill-advised for junior high. Let your child be a child for a while. I covered this in an earlier blog.

What does my child need to get into college?

Each year of study is one credit. A one-semester class is a half-credit. Meet the requirements  for your state, but also keep in mind that colleges may have more stringent demands. Contact the colleges of your choice or browse around at College Board to see what colleges are looking for.

My own polling of colleges–including military academies, Ivy League, state universities, and Christian colleges–shows that on average these are the credit requirements for entry:

  • English–4
  • Foreign Language–3
  • History/Social Science–3-4
  • Math–4
  • Science–3-4
  • Electives, including art–1 to 4.

Included in that Social Science category is 1/2 credit of Government and 1/2 credit of Economics. Those are usually taken at the junior or senior level of high school. Keep in mind that the college you’re looking for may have other numbers, so take a careful look for yourself.

A word about English, since it is a passion of mine. Don’t just think that a few books and a couple of essays a year will suffice for High School English. An English class must teach literature, grammar, and composition purposefully. (Grammar can be left behind on or about 9th grade if your student’s understanding is sufficient.)  One incredibly popular writing program used by many home schoolers is sufficient up toward junior high, but it will not do as college prep for high school. Its formulas help set the foundation for good writing, but your child needs to grow beyond that formula very soon. See my past blog on writing well. You do your child no favors if you try to take shortcuts with his writing.

In addition to a good transcript, colleges have their eye on a few other criteria. Of course they will look at your transcript. Then they will, in essence, say, “prove it to us.” They want to see if your student’s SAT and/or ACT scores match up to what you say he has taken on his transcript. Some colleges may also require some placement tests upon entry. I have known students who had to take a foreign language placement test on the first day of Freshman Orientation at college. Just because the transcript said there was a foreign language, didn’t mean the student had met their standards.

Colleges also want to see a few other things when looking at the transcript, application, recommendation letters, and college essays:college pennant

  • Excellent academics
  • Special talents
  • Community service
  • Leadership
  • Initiative
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Jobs held

I often recommend showing some of that by attaching an Appendix to a student’s transcripts, listing the curriculum and books read each year, as well as extracurricular activities, honors, sports, community involvement, and so forth, so that colleges can see your student is well-rounded.

What about CLEP, AP, and Dual Enrollment?

By all means have your student take the CLEP exam upon entering college if it is offered. The tests cost, but if a student earns credit you will save money in the end. AP exams are a good idea, if your child is prepared for them. Some homeschool programs offer AP courses. They are a lot of work, but they are excellent preparation for college. The growing trend these days is more toward AP in homeschoolers, and I welcome it; just make sure your child is well-prepared for the AP classes. Don’t pile them on; two a year is sufficient, and honestly, the junior and senior year is the time for those classes–no earlier. Again, we are talking about maturity of the student as well as maturity of the subject matter.

I have written about Dual Enrollment before. There are hazards inherent in such programs, including the fact that your little darling will be spending part of his day in the presence of countless adults on a college campus, while he may not be old enough to drive. Be sure your child has the maturity to be there. Also, be sure that the college he plans to attend will accept the dual credits he is earning.

Also understand that a college-semester math or science class will not cover everything that very same high school class covers. In essence, then, your child will not be learning the same amount as his peers. Whether that sets a strong foundation for college is up to you to decide. Sometimes the “free” tuition in some dual enrollment programs may not turn out to be so advantageous when looking at its down sides. Be wise in your decisions. Yes, Dual Credits seem like a good thing, but there seem to be some risks involved, so just be cautious.

Excellence is the key

In all you plan for your child, do not settle for less than excellence–in curriculum, in classroom opportunities, and in results. If your child is not headed to college, it doesn’t hurt to have a great transcript anyway, because in a few years your child may change his mind, or be required by his employer to take some classes, or just be ready to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive work force. Choose excellence for your child no matter what.

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The Pitfalls of Classical Homeschooling

You’ve done your homework, made your preparations, and purchased all the Great Books you plan to read during this year of Classical Homeschooling. What could possibly go wrong?

In previous blogs I lauded the merits of Classical schooling. I have worked in the Classical realm for 20 years and have watched many, many children move through their high school careers. I maintain that this is a marvelous method for educating young minds. And yet there are still some reservations to keep in mind as you go along.

glasses kidFirst, this method is not for everyone. It entails a huge amount of reading, and not every child has a natural bent toward reading. For some, reading takes a lot of work, whether from a mild to moderate learning disability, or because his mind is always on some activity he would rather be undertaking, or simply because he hates it. If the reading is just taking too much out of your child, then consider 1) testing him for a learning problem and/or 2) finding another path of learning for this one child.

Second, some in the Classical model have a tendency to overemphasize one area at the expense of others. For example, Classical is more heavy on the humanities; that’s just its nature. However, do not think that since you are “doing Classical” you can just put off math and science for another time, or minimize its importance. No, remember that all things are connected, and that we do not just separate out the subjects. All of this is part of one well-rounded, well-educated child. In fact, learning math and science helps a child to think more logically. That can help him to make connections during his Dialectic and Rhetoric stages. This is important in higher level thinking.

Third, some in Classical figure that this kind of program is only for the humanities kid, and not for the math/science student. That too is wrong. It’s not just the English major who needs to think well, to write well, and to learn history. Science and math students–yes, and engineers–need to know how to write reports and studies. All of them also need to make logical, compelling, and beautiful defenses for their faith. Don’t let your math and science kid convince you that he doesn’t need to go very far in his humanities. That’s just not correct. In fact, when Rhetoric is taught well, the math guy will like learning how to write for Rhetoric just as well as the humanities kid. (As the author of Biblical Worldview Rhetoric and the teacher of that class for many years, I can attest to the number of engineering guys who passed through my classes with flying colors. There’s something about the formulaic method in Rhetoric that they seem to love just as much as the potential English major!)

Fourth, the Classical method is not necessarily THE only way to educate. It is, in my opinion, superior in many ways. But it does not give a parent or teacher license to brag, boast, or snobbishly declare that all other ways are rubbish. That’s just irritating, unkind, and wrong. I urge all parents to educate their children WELL. Use what methods you can afford and what you have the time and inclination for. However, Classical schooling does not give you license to rub other people’s faces in it. Don’t let me catch you doing it.

In fact, in some places I have witnessed overemphasis on the METHOD of Classical and Christian education, rather than on the HEART. Once Christ has been abandoned as the center of all things, it will all fall apart quickly. Keep perspective, knowing that Christ is at the center, holding all things together. Never make Classical THE THING in your lives more than Christ is.

Fifth, some people will try to sell you on Classical models that 1) might not truly be fully Classical or 2) may be wrongly administered or 3) might just be low quality. Inspect the material well. Does it include answer keys, supply links and lists of extra reading? Does it cover enough material for 9 months of deep study? By high school, your child should be able to spend one to two hours per day on each subject. Is the curriculum providing enough rich materials for that kind of study? Or does it skip around from here to there, not focusing for very long? Does it offer opportunities for students to reflect on what they read and make connections to their studies?

One popular Classical set of studies, selling from Ancient to Modern syllabi, piles the reading on to the students but does not supply any kind of teacher guide so that the parent or tutor can help the student make connections throughout. That’s unfortunate. Some programs I have seen will provide classes for 8 weeks and then encourage parents to give their students full credit. I beg to differ; no 8-week course can give the kind of breadth and scope necessary for a full high school credit (hardly even for a half-credit). Nor should you, for example, award an English credit for some curriculum that has you read a few books and write one or two essays. Be reasonable. That’s cheating your child of valuable and necessary learning.

Sixth, and this is very important, the student in Classical all the way through high school may tend toward arrogance if not carefully balanced. existentialismAgain, some of this has to do with the exclusivity that one might feel about having done this wonderful thing called Classical. But much of it comes from knowing that you are reading and studying some very difficult material at a very high level of thinking and writing, and that just makes you superior to your peers. Arrogance has no place in Classical and Christian education. This kind of learning may cause you to think deeply, write beautifully, stand up and speak well for yourself, and you may be able to hold a conversation about existentialism with the best of them, but that does not make you even one small step better than others. Parents, do not let your teenager take that unwise step. May your child grow into a humble, patient, wise, and caring young man or woman, groomed by Classical education.

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Classical Homeschooling at the upper levels

In my last blog I touched on the parroting aspect of the grammar level of classical schooling. If you were to continue schooling your child this way all the way through high school, you will have failed miserably. Education runs aground if it ends in parroting. Without the growth and expansion of the dialectical and rhetoric stages of education, a student will not know how to handle the information he has learned all along, and he turns out no better than his public-schooled peers.

Dorothy Sayers, in her 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” asked her readers if they were not disturbed by certain signs of modern education:Dorothy Sayers

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?

 Sayers, in her post-World-War-II thinking, is asking how an educated people could have succumbed to the propaganda of such madmen as Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin. What would she say today about our political-correctness run amok? Where people spout empty philosophies that sound so great but are completely meaningless? Or where people spew forth ideas full of the failings of philosophies past (i.e. socialism)?

You will be easily led down the wrong path if all you can do is parrot back what you have learned. If you cannot plumb the depths of what you study, if you cannot separate emotion from fact, and analyze the information that is coming at you, if you cannot then articulate your beliefs, you run the risk of falling into the trap of whoever holds power. This is why we teach our students how to think, analyze, process, make connections, read for themselves the ideas of the past. This is why we educate classically.

Thus we begin a discussion of Classical Schooling at the upper level. The standards suddenly just got higher, didn’t they? When you look for curriculum for your teenager, you need to discern what is being taught. Is it more rote learning? Is it empty of meaning? Then discard it. Does it teach a student to make connections between disciplines? In other words, does it encourage the reader to study the philosopher and the age in which he lived, and then look at the impact of that philosophy on the age that followed? Does the curriculum walk a student through history to make a point? Does it bring in the writings of great thinkers (both good and bad) in their own words?

One very impactful part of high school Classical schooling comes when students make connections that startle them and get them thinking. I have my students read “The Communist Manifesto” and then Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address. They are stunned to see ideas put forth in FDR that they had just read in Marx. It’s those kinds of connections we want to see.

Some Classical curricula just piles on the work, pumping students full of learning but never encouraging them to pause and contemplate the connections they need to make during these crucial teenage years. If there is no directed learning, just a lot of reading, discard it. Does that mean there needs to be a teacher at the other end? Maybe. If there is no teacher material that helps you, the parent, to direct your child’s thinking and make significant conclusions about the material, then perhaps this isn’t the curriculum for you.

Over the years I have encountered six or seven key brands of curriculum that consider themselves classical, and perhaps a handful more of classical schooling brands that tout an online form of some sort. Evaluate them carefully. Ask questions.

If this is an online or face-to-face learning experience, ask lots of questions. Hold them to a high level of accountability, because they are probably asking for a lot of money. Will there be someone to direct my student’s thinking, to help my student break down the information he is consuming? Will someone give my student directed feedback at regular intervals so that his learning/writing will improve and grow? Is this taught from a biblical or secular worldview? Is it learning just for the sake of learning, or is this learning in order to produce a thoughtful young man or woman? What will they be reading? Will there be plenty of primary resources to read?

Focus on writing. Be sure that you begin their writing in their earlier years, and be sure to continue at a high level throughout the Dialectic and Rhetoric level. They should be done with grammar by (or including) 9th grade or so, and they should be able to focus on writing well from then on. Ensure that the student gets directed feedback on his writing from someone who can hold his feet to the flames, so that he can grow as a writer. Do not ignore his writing! A purposeful Rhetoric curriculum will improve his writing as well. By the end of his high school career he should have learned how to express his thoughts beautifully, both written and orally.

A thoughtful, purposeful Classical educator will look at the young child and envision him as a high school senior, and the parent/teacher will begin to pour into him those things that will form him into the thoughtful human being God has created him to become. Isn’t that the goal of parenting anyway?

In my next blog I will talk about the hazards of Classical schooling.

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Classical Homeschooling: A definition

Aristotle“The failure of our educational system goes beyond what they fail to teach. It includes what they do teach, or rather indoctrinate, and the graduates they send out into the world, incapable of seriously weighing alternatives for themselves or for American society.” Thomas Sowell, columnist

My visit to a recent homeschool convention showed me not only that some of the curriculum “out there” is inadequate to teach students thoroughly and well, but also that Classical Schooling must be the newest fad to follow.

This both encouraged and disheartened me. As a teacher in Classical methods I was encouraged because Classical Schooling is gaining in popularity among homeschooling families. Discouraged because, from my experience as a teacher, curriculum writer, and attendee at many homeschool conventions over the years, I know that many of the offerings I saw at tables were not high enough quality to meet the stringent demands that some classicists have.

What is Classical Schooling?

The writer Dorothy Sayers sparked a flame that began to grow when she wrote an essay titled “The Lost Tools of Learning” in 1947. In that essay she expounded on the way a child learns best, and that is according to the model of classical learning from times past. She mourned the loss of such educational methods, as she was very much a classicist herself. “Is not the great defect of our education today–a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned–that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.”

Sayers posits that a child learns best if his learning methods are addressed according to his age group. When in the Grammar level (up through 6th grade or so)–Sayers calls it “Poll-Parrot”–the student learns the components of his language and of the other subjects in school. The “grammar” of math, then, are the math facts every child can learn to parrot back to his parent. The grammar of history would be those history facts that every child learns: the presidents, the continents, the states, the names, places, and dates. And so forth. Children learn in a sing-song manner the parts of language, almost as much as you can cram into their darling little heads. They don’t need the whys; they just stuff their heads full of facts and parrot them back.

As a high school English teacher I was in tears when I first watched third graders diagram sentences. The year before, when we had not yet transitioned to Classical, those same children hardly knew the parts of grammar. Here they were a year later diagramming sentences, having fun showing off their knowledge.

Once they have their facts, and they reach  the age of argumentation (those little eyeballs start to roll around in their heads about 6th or 7th grade), they have transitioned to what Sayers calls “Pert” or Dialectical. This is when their teachers need to incorporate Logic into their thinking. This is when we take the facts they have been learning and make connections for them–or better put, we allow them to make the connections. Their writing becomes more sophisticated. Their history, math, and science understanding grows because they can begin to form hypotheses and test them out based on what they already know.

This is the time that they want to challenge authority, whom they suspect doesn’t know what they’re talking about. So they learn Logic, a new way of thinking, almost the equivalent of learning a new language. They see how arguments can be analyzed by their component parts, what makes fallacies, and why. They pick up on the fallacies of other people’s ideas–then they realize that they themselves make fallacies too.

By the time they reach 9th or 10th grade, they are ready for what Sayers calls the “Poetic” or Rhetoric stage. Here they can put all their past learning together and figure out how to make connections across the broad scope of their learning. They can look into the ideas and philosophies of the past and see how mistakes of the present day are a direct result. They can put into writing those thoughts and ideas that come flowing out, beautifully expressing themselves.

Nuts and Bolts: What gets done?

One of the hallmarks of Classical education is the integration of learning. The classical approach is known for moving through the periods of history and learning everything there is to learn at each level. So what you read in literature you are also learning in history and geography, and you’re doing art projects connected to the history and country that you’ve been studying. Science gets involved, as you can study the inventions of the ages you visit. As students get older the studying goes deeper. Delve into the religion of the age, read the philosophers, study their style of writing and their art, their music and theater. At the Rhetoric level, examine the ideas of the authors and philosophers. See how they lived out their own ideas and how well that worked. Imitate the writing of the great authors to see how their words flowed. Make your own writing soar beautifully like that. Examine your own philosophies and worldviews based on what you learn in the worldviews of others whom you study. For example, in history they may be learning about the French Revolution, while in literature they read Tale of Two Cities, and in philosophy they study the ideas of the Social Contract and  the writings of Rousseau and other Enlightenment philosophers, while in Rhetoric they study and analyze the speeches of Robespierre and Desmoulins. These students can reach across the disciplines of study to make connections and conclusions, and they can amaze their teacher by what comes out of this kind of thinking.

What material works best?

I am not going to recommend particular curriculum. That’s the job for other people. But I will give you criteria to use when examining curriculum.

For the grammar level, find curriculum that will teach grammar facts in a sing-song manner, just the same way you might teach them Bible verses through song. But don’t just go for the singing; aim for the breadth of what is covered. Are all the grammar facts–are all the math facts–covered in an age-appropriate manner, and is it achievable in a span of 9 months (the length of a school year)? Make sure to expose your children to lots of age-appropriate literature. Give them plenty to read. Choose their history, literature, geography, and science in a complementary fashion that goes along with their literature. Start simply and add more complicated information as they get older. Give them great books to read, not just simple junk you pick up at the Christian book store.

Some parents think that makes their job easier, to know they will be studying all one age in history and focusing everything around it. Some science curricula break up a year of science into four sections: earth, biology, physical, and chemical. Those sciences get more and more complex until the student can take a full year of general and then a full year of physical science in the dialectical stage, then moving up to Biology in 9th.

Should they take Latin? Most classical schooling does include Latin. Some have done that so by a certain point the child would be ready to read some of the philosophers and poets in the original language. The rote method helps a student to organize his thoughts, to learn English grammar, and to expand his English vocabulary. At the grammar stage Latin is simply just rote learning: repeating sounds back to the teacher. Look for early Latin grammar that focuses on rote (sing-song) learning. Those mechanical memories get attached to meaning once they move along into vocabulary-building. The acquirement of this second language will help aid in the learning of yet another language–Spanish or French–when they get older as well. You’ll be amazed, when you learn with them, how similar much of the vocabulary is.

At the high school level there is much to be had for the teaching at the Classical level. Some of it is good. In another blog I will provide some more thoughts on what to look for. Just be careful to find high school curriculum that doesn’t simplify but includes readings from primary sources all through history. Read the great thinkers (authors and philosophers) in their own words, and connect that with what’s going on in their time of history.

Can Classical Schooling be done at home? For years it was thought that no, this was too difficult, too wide and too deep. However, as they sometimes prove to be pioneers, homeschoolers met that challenge and decided to climb Mount Olympus.

However, don’t be drawn in by all the flashy offerings that call themselves “classical” just because it carries the name. It needs to have certain criteria to be considered good enough for your classically-schooled child. Look for more helpful information on classical schooling in the Dialectical and Rhetoric level in my next blog.

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Homeschooling with a Biblical Worldview: How?

If you are like me, you grew up in public schooling, because “back then” Christian or home schools were not very popular or widespread. There, we learned to separate out our course work. This is math, and this is science, and so forth. Nothing had anything to do with the other.

Schooling with a secular mindset is just like that. I don’t mean to criticize; it just is that way. Subjects are subjects, and their relation to the world at large might be addressed in some fashion, but there is something distinctly missing: how it all connects.

When we look at the world through biblical glasses, we see a universe that is governed and held together by one Creator God through his Son, Jesus Christ. “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17, emphasis mine). When we see the universe in that light, we begin to have a different perspective on all sorts of areas.

Education, for example, is one institution that can never be the same again–at least for me–when seeing with those biblical worldview glasses. Our children need to know that all things came about by God’s hand. When we say “all things,” we can no longer wonder what that means. “All,” we teach our children, “means all.” No single thing has come about without the hand of God overseeing, maintaining, and holding it together.

stars and planetsThat makes us look at science differently, doesn’t it? Certainly a God who governs all things also governs science, because He is the author of it all. So since science belongs to Him, how can we teach it with a biblical worldview? We study the elements, the basic units of life, the way they react and interact, with a sense of wonder about the One who made it all.

Science is not anti-God, nor is God anti-science. There are scientists who have pitted themselves against the biblical worldview, so we allow them to speak, we examine their worldviews, and we arrive at our conclusions based on the fulness of what we study. If God is the author of all things, we should not fear man’s schemes to eliminate God from the practice of science. Rather, we should hold up what they say, balance it against a biblical worldview, and make reasoned hypotheses, testing them out. What cannot be tested remains an item of faith on both sides.

On to mathematics. Did you know that there is a biblical worldview to math? Again, if God is the center of all things, and all things come together in Him, it stands to reason that He created the elements of math. Numbers have patterns; they fall together according to those patterns. “Why can a few basic equations predict the motions of planets, the paths of projectiles, and so on? If mathematics is man-made, merely a product of human thought, why does it reflect the way the universe works?” (James Nance, Repairing the Ruins 62). The work of God’s hands is evident everywhere in the study of mathematics. James Nance states it well:

Applied mathematics is the process of discovering and using the laws by which God governs (rules and sustains) His creation. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. In Him all things hold together (Col. 1:17). The mathematical laws which describe how things are held together are consistent laws because Christ Himself is consistent and unchanging (Heb. 13:8). When we discover laws in astronomy, we are discovering the laws which describe how God sustains the heavens (Ps. 33:6-9). When we discover the laws of atomic physics, we discover how God sustains matter, “upholding all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3). (66)

Biblical worldview instruction in math should teach that it recognizes the invisible attributes of God. It should “show students how mathematics relates to physical reality because God is the Creator both of the workings of men’s minds and the workings of the universe” (Nance 70).

History is sometimes easy to see and study from a biblical worldview. But are we handling it well? Students come into my class saying something their parents probably told them: “History is His-story.” That’s cute, and it comes close to what we really mean. But do they know why we study history? Do they realize that God commanded the preservation of the stories of what He had done in the past (Deut. 6:20-25; Josh. 4:5-7; 1 Ch. 16:7; Luke 17:32, and more)? Do they know that the term history came to be understood during Greek times as “a systematic inquiry into past events and their relations to one another” (Chris Schlect, Repairing the Ruins 148)?

Why do we study history? Teaching it from a biblical worldview provides the framework for students, and for ourselves as we read. God instructed men to record histories so that people could learn from the experiences of those who have gone before. If the only way to learn something is by your own experience, then you have no need of history. But if we intend to teach the errors and majesties of history, we need to be ready to learn from them. We need to use as our foundation the fact that we as Christians believe in the history of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lived and walked among men at one point in history, a history that was recorded by other people. Our faith is not nebulous or manufactured; it is based on events that truly happened and were witnessed by others. This fact alone serves as foundation to our faith.

Somewhere at the turn of the 20th Century some people began to conjecture that Christianity was not based on some historical person but on some subjective idea of Jesus based on the experience of the Christian himself. If we cannot point to the historical fact of our faith, then it is nothing more than a collection of morals and fables, like many other religions. So we study history to know the truth about our faith, but also about mankind.

As with the study of history, we learn about man and his yearnings, his ambitions, his errors and failings, when we study literature. We can see the sweeping beauty of a mind that can create such classics as Les Miserables or Macbeth. We can see the depths of horrors to which man can stoop as well. We study literature to study the nature of man.

And we cannot easily study man, through literature, if we only choose Christian novels. I can say with assurance that, short of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, there are not many pieces of excellent Christian literature out there. You can try to name some, but I will argue that they are not classical literature, not able to stand the test of time, not able to even depart far from the stagnant formula of most secular romance or historical romance novels. See my blog on the value of those Christian novels as compared to great classical literature, as well as my blog on reading literature with a biblical worldview.

bonnetsIf we only teach our children from Christian “literature,” they only get exposed to those super-sweet, falsely presented dilemmas with formulaic endings. They will not experience great writing, only so-so handling of the pen. With formulaic stories, we don’t see the pain and anxiety of a dark, fallen, and sinful world. I am always disappointed when a Christian homeschooled teen tells me her favorite novel is one of those horribly written Christian romances with bonnets and farms on the cover. It shows the shallowness of what her family considers good literature.

But I digress. Teaching literature with a biblical worldview allows discussions of the depravity of man, about his yearning to find a savior, about the way he sets up idols that will always disappoint. Have you ever discussed Frankenstein with a teenager? That novel tells the story of a man who made himself a god, created a human creature, abandoned it, and lived the rest of his life pursuing the creature’s death. It is also the story of the author, Mary Shelley, who never felt the real love of another person, who probably felt like God had created and then abandoned her. What a horrible way to live–and then we see her pain poured out on the pages of her novel.

This is reading literature from a biblical worldview. This is teaching with a biblical worldview. Not simply plopping a Bible verse down at the beginning of a lesson and calling it good (while that can be quite good, because God’s word will never return void). Instead, it is taking the view that if God is the center of all things, so must be what we study. All of it. Because all means all.

(Some of this article was inspired by essays within the book Repairing the Ruins, edited by Douglas Wilson. Canon Press, Moscow, ID, 1996.)

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Biblical Worldview Apologetics for Teens

argumentTeens like to argue. Have you noticed? Some find it invigorating to argue with people who don’t have the same beliefs. Some will try to argue the superiority of their own belief systems. Some will argue just to argue.

When it comes to apologetics, though, you want your teen to have a solid grounding in biblical worldview before he ventures out ready to argue. For some teens, having just a little information is like putting a gun in their hands before they know how to aim it.

The Apologist’s Mind

I like knowing that teens have a foundation in the Word of God. Since His Word never fails, and since it will never come back void (Isa. 55:11), we know that a teen who knows his Bible is well-armed against his opponents.

I also love to teach teenagers Logic. That course teaches students how to think and how to order their thoughts. It helps them organize information that is coming at them and helps them to see arguments from a different perspective–not totally emotionally. Douglas Wilson and James Nance wrote Introductory Logic and Intermediate Logic, which I have used for many years.

Teach Doctrine to your student. How will he know what he is defending if he doesn’t know doctrine? Teach from Luther’s Small Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I also love the Heidelburg Catechism. Teach from Paul Little’s Know What You Believe and open up Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Grudem also wrote Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, which might be instructive for doctrine.

Learn together the different belief systems of other worldviews. You need to understand their beliefs and backgrounds in order to counter their arguments. Together you and your teen can pray for the people who fall into those beliefs, knowing that there is only one true Creator God, and His Word is the only measurement of absolute truth. The world is starving for truth and searching for it in unlikely places. God’s Word has the answers. Josh McDowell has written several books on other religions and worldviews, such as A Ready Defense and The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. David Noebel wrote Understanding the Times and its smaller companion, Battle for the Truth. These are all good resources.

Study the works of apologists. McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter, CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and Little’s Know Why You Believe are all solid foundation-builders. Lee Strobel wrote his powerful book The Case for Christ, followed up by The Case for Faith and The Case for a Creator, all great resources by a former atheist who set out to prove Christianity wrong. Greg Bahnsen’s Always Ready was my constant companion when I taught high school apologetics. I’m sure my readers will write in with many more great resources.

The Attitude and Lifestyle of an Apologist

Being grounded in God’s Word and then armed with all the resources named above, you would think that the teenager will be more than ready for the confrontation when it comes. However, he’s only part way there.

All that learning can make a person proud, can puff up, as 1 Corinthians 8:1 says (out of context). As you are building up your store of knowledge, remember that Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (ESV). When learning is dedicated to God, when you take the time to ask for His wisdom in the midst of what you learn, your pride and boasting takes a different direction. Rather than boasting in yourself or in your vast treasury of knowledge, you will boast in Jesus Christ, your Savior, who enables all of this learning. With this perspective in  mind, what will follow?

Avoid arrogance. “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4, emphasis mine). Apologetics is not a rivalry, not an opportunity to come out on top. This is a battle of light against darkness, and only the Lord will secure the outcome. When you have the best interest of your “opponent” in mind, you will not consider this a debate contest in which to earn points.

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Tim 2:22-26, emphasis mine)

Bahnsen used the term “humble boldness,” which I love to use. Teens can see what that is supposed to mean. The boldness entails assurance of what you know, while humbleness speaks of someone who considers others before himself.  Boldness also speaks of fearlessness in the face of opposition, and the following passage in Philippians addresses that beautifully.

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. (Phil. 1:27-28, emphasis mine)

Realize from whom all your words come. Paul reminded the Corinthians that when he came to them, he “did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1-5). Paul makes it clear it is not his great mind that did the work of saving the people of Corinth, but God himself through the power of His Spirit. Keep in mind that you can draw attention to yourself or to your great God with the apologetics you use.

Finally, be prepared (1 Pet. 3:13-17). You may not know the next time you are called upon to defend your faith. This is one reason that the Bible urges us to wear our armor (Eph. 6:10-20), so that we can always be in a defensive position. This same passage in Ephesians reminds us to pray always, too, for the right words, to declare them boldly.

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