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Engaging Babylon: Life as An Exile

By Chris Knerr, Director of the Integration of Faith and Learning and upper school history teacher 

I was recently given the opportunity to speak on our theme of the year, Living In Exile, in Chapel. The prophet Jeremiah, speaking to the Israelites who found themselves in captivity in Babylon, gave what must have been a somewhat disheartening message:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

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In other words, God tells his people: You’re going to be here for a while. Put down roots. Have families. Get a job. Oh, and by the way, work to flourish this completely foreign, pagan culture.

But what does this have to do with students at Westminster Christian Academy in Town & Country, Missouri? Are our students certainly not in exile in America? I asked the students to consider Augustine’s words in City of God and to reflect on which of these descriptions sounded more like our culture in modern America:

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the hatred of God; and the heavenly by the love of God even to the contempt of self…For one seeks the glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience.

I certainly do not minimize the place of faith and biblical values that have had such an important influence on our history. But our students are not immune to the fact that more and more, our culture is looking far more like Babylon than the City of God, or even the America of 20 years ago. As Christians in an increasingly secular culture, we will feel more like exiles than citizens, more like captives than contributors. And Westminster students will feel the tension of life in Babylon.

In trying to help our students understand what it means to be an exile, I posed these questions: “Should we be surprised when Babylonians act like Babylonians? Should we expect Babylonians to act like Christians? Does sensuality and materialism come as a surprise to us? Are we shocked by the outlandish morality of cultural icons?”

If we answer “no” to these questions, what should be our response? Do we adopt a bunker mentality and completely disengage from our surroundings? Do we redouble our efforts to win the “culture wars”? Or, might it be best to embrace our status as exiles destined for another home, and while we are here work to flourish this increasingly foreign and pagan culture? If so, our teachers and students need to begin to see their context in a new light and prepare to engage Babylon.

At this point in my Chapel message, I directed our students’ attention to the life of the prophet Daniel, who was an exile in Babylon. I don’t know if they wanted to hear this after a week of tests, papers, and quizzes, but I told them that engagement with Babylon will require a great deal of preparation and hard work:

Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunich, to bring some of the people of Israel, both the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding and learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans…They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time, they were to stand before the king. (Daniel 1:3-5)

Like Daniel, our students will have to study! They will watch Babylonian films, they will read Babylonian literature, and they will engage the arts – not just for the sake of being “culturally relevant” but to understand Babylonian culture, just as Daniel did. Our students will leave our halls competent and prepared to flourish the city by being faithful to their calling, whether it be teaching, commerce, ministry, or medicine. Someday, some of our graduates may “stand before kings” and will serve those with great power and authority. My colleagues and I relish our role in preparing them well for such a task.

I was hopeful that our students would be encouraged by the fact that they would using their talents and skills to work for the good of the city, but I also wanted them to know that life in Babylon will not be comfortable and easy. Daniel understood that while he was to serve the city, he was also commanded to remain distinct from it. He “resolved himself that he would not defile himself with the king’s food” (Daniel 1:8). His fellow exiles, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, respectfully refused to bow to idols under threat for their lives saying, “…be it known to you, O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

Our students must leave Westminster with a firm understanding that they, too, are set apart as God’s people who, though working to flourish the city, will also be required to stand apart and resist its rebellion when called upon to do so. I asked the students, “What things could defile you in this Babylon?” and “How do we handle the tension between engaging the city and our call to a life of holiness while avoiding being ‘holier than thou’?”

As a middle and upper school student years or months away from graduation, life in exile must seem abstract at best. “How do I engage the city I’m in now? I’m at Westminster. I have friends. I have schoolwork. Oh, and by the way, I’m not leaving any time soon.” I told them that we, in community, are to live the life of Daniel even within the walls of a Christian school. I challenged them to engage. How? By developing a sense of intellectual wonder by acting in plays, when writing poems and performing experiments, by playing instruments, and over time, by coming to the understanding that in using their talents and gifts they are contributing to this city. And we do all these things motivated by love for one another.

Our students live in a culture whose customs and practices are increasingly foreign and in many cases offensive. Yet in this land of exile, there will be numerous opportunities for them to be faithful to Christ by engaging the culture and working for its welfare. As a Christian educator, I pray with my colleagues that we will help to form young men and young women who will do just that.

I’m indebted to Denis Haack of Ransom Fellowship for the ideas that were the basis for this article. Read Denis’ 11-part series on life in Babylon at ransomfellowship.org.

Stirring Up

By Shelley Milligan, Assistant Head of School – Advancement

When I started working at Westminster in August 2014, one of my first observations about the school related to community. During that time, I told many people that I was starting a new job but quickly saw the hollowness of that phrase. I soon amended my thinking to a more accurate description of my transition: I was joining a new community.

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Westminster embodies the best of community: people drawn together for a common purpose – preparing students to engage the world and change it for Jesus Christ. It takes a little time for each of us to understand the culture of the community and how exactly the Lord wants to use us within it, which is why I’m so excited about the school’s theme verse for the 2015-16 school year: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24).

The book of Hebrews makes me think of running races, great clouds of witnesses, great high priests, and long lineages of Biblical heroes. But Hebrews 10:24 has quickly become a favorite verse, especially as I think of the many ways in which the Westminster community has stirred me to love and good works.

Last week, I left the upper school office doors and began walking down the Grand Entry staircase with a group of 20-25 students toting black folders. I glanced at my phone to check the time, all of a sudden understanding why I felt so tired: mid-afternoon marks the time when I most want to nap! I shuffled down the stairs, walking toward the Business Office.

The students walked with me, laughing and talking amongst themselves as I asked myself what they were doing. They then formed a circle in the Grand Entry and opened their folders. Allen Schwamb stood in the center of their circle and began moving his arms. “They can’t be about to sing,” I told myself, looking around for their audience. The Grand Entry’s occupants at that time consisted of front desk folks, a few wanderers passing through, and me.

The 20 students opened their mouths, but the sound was one single rich tone. They sang acapella in a language I don’t understand, but the music immediately reached over and grabbed my heart, pointing me to Jesus, whose love transcends words. They were stirring up a sleepy soul in need of encouragement.

My day was instantly transformed. Isn’t it just like the Holy Spirit to interrupt an ordinary work day with a performance of such spontaneous glory that we can’t help but be pointed to Jesus? During their song, I kept thinking to myself, “No one is here to hear them!” and “I should go tell my colleagues to come out here!” Instead I surrendered and simply listened, and now, looking back, I wonder if that performance was only for me. Isn’t that just like the Lord? To arrange a private concert to stir me toward love and good works?

Not all of us are part of a choir that can sing someone’s soul to the Lord, but we have all been blessed to be a blessing. Westminster will spend this year looking for ways to stir one another to love and good works. Will you join us?

coreyCory Snyder: Christ, Character, and Commitment

For the Westminster varsity football team, this season is one for the history books. A 27-14 win over John Burroughs on October 3 catapulted the team to their first-ever 7-0 start and handed them Westminster’s first outright Metro League championship – cause for huge celebration. For Head Coach Cory Snyder, however, three things remain most important when it comes to football, no matter the outcome on the field: Christ, character, and commitment to excellence.

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“We talk a lot with the guys at weekly chapel and before games about character development,” says Coach Snyder. “We try to start with who the guys are as individuals and how the roles you fill after high school – employee, employer, husband, father – always begin with character.”

This three-pronged approach, as Coach Snyder describes it, is an intentional and pervasive philosophy for the Westminster football program. “We hope that when guys walk out of the program they have grown in their relationship with Christ (or come closer to knowing Him), grown in their character, and competed at the highest level they can,” says Coach Snyder. It’s a philosophy he hopes the players will carry with them all their lives.

Football played a significant part in Coach Snyder’s own life. “I played in high school in the small town of New Carlisle, Ohio, where I grew up,” says Coach Snyder. “The coaches I had and the experience of being on the team was life-changing for me. They had a huge impact on me in terms of teaching me discipline, responsibility, and toughness.”

In fact, it was thanks to the guidance and encouragement of his football coaches that led Coach Snyder to apply to Washington University in St. Louis after being recruited to play college football for the university. Once at Wash U, he joined the team as a wide receiver. The team’s coach, Larry Kindbom, husband of Westminster College and Career Counselor Kate Kindbom, would eventually be the one to connect Coach Snyder to Westminster and land him his first job out of college.

At Wash U, Coach Snyder began his degree with aspirations of becoming a doctor, but God had other plans. “Looking back, I wasn’t really prepared to handle the academic challenges [at Wash U],” he says. “High school had been pretty easy, and when I got to college, it took me a year and a half to figure it all out. I didn’t really know what it would take in terms of study habits to be successful in the pre-med track.”

Eventually, he changed his major to physics and secondary education. Deciding to become a teacher seemed like a natural alternative. “I was already pretty good at helping friends in high school with homework – explaining concepts and how things work,” he says. “I was also invested in my physics degree at Wash U. I wasn’t interested in business, and it made sense to me to go the education route.” His change in course, and ultimately career, was a decision he felt was in line with God’s plan for his life. “You don’t go to Wash U to be a teacher, but I know that it was definitely the hand of God that led me there and to St. Louis,” he says. “I was actually looking at a few other colleges my senior year of high school, but ultimately Wash U was where God directed me.”

After his senior year of college, Coach Snyder met his wife Nicole while attending a singles Bible study. The two were married in March 2003. They now have two children, AJ (9) and Elise (7). Following graduation, Kindbom encouraged Coach Snyder to apply for a teaching position at Westminster. “I was hesitant at first,” says Coach. “There weren’t many private schools where I grew up – only small ones. But eventually, I applied. [Head of School Emeritus] Jim Marsh called me, and I scheduled a time to visit the campus. I met him there, and he showed me around.” The rest was history.

Currently in his 15th year at Westminster, Coach Snyder fills multiple roles and juggles a range of different responsibilities as a physics teacher, registrar, and head coach of the varsity football team. His first year at Westminster, he taught math; his second year, he began teaching physics, a position he says was better suited for him. In 2007, he assumed the registrar position while working as an assistant football coach and defensive coordinator.

While his roles and responsibilities at Westminster have fluctuated, teaching has remained a constant. Coach Snyder says it’s something he wants to hold on to. “If all I was doing was an office job, I would lose connection with the kids. Teaching gives me that connection with them outside of the football program. I also do lunchroom duty to be around students and touch base with them.” At the end of the day, it’s ultimately the way students grow through the learning process that matters most, he says. “For me, it’s about the growth of students much more than the subject matter. I know that the amount of physics they’ll remember 10-15 years from now won’t be astounding, but the growth they experience in learning physics will help them the rest of their lives.”

He feels the same way about his position as head football coach, a role he assumed in 2011. He says football is as much about the personal and spiritual growth of the players as it is about winning the game. “The honest truth is that for me, there are two parts to coaching,” he says. “One part is that I love the game. I love competing and strategizing – that’s the personal side. The second and bigger part is that God used the game of football in my life to direct my path and lead me. He uses a lot of different things in people’s lives, and that’s what he used in my life to lead me to Wash U and bring me to Westminster.”

In the same way that God used football to work in his life, Coach Snyder sees football as an opportunity to grow his student athletes. “It’s a chance to teach them character during a prime time for growth and spiritual development in their lives,” says Coach Snyder, reflecting on his own high school experience. “God changes you. I’m not the same person I was then. Remembering God’s work in my life during that time helps me understand and engage with my athletes today.”

Change has been a key element in the development of the football program the past several years. The guys and the program have come a long way, Coach Snyder says. “Traditionally, season win-loss records have been like mountains and valleys. We’re definitely in an upcycle right now. When we return back to a ‘norm,’ I don’t want that norm to be a valley like it was in the past,” he says. “I hope that we can continue to develop a program that’s more consistent with on-field success.

Still through all the highs and lows, the students in the football program have demonstrated incredible effort, resilience, and perseverance. They have clearly represented the program’s three core values: Christ, character, and commitment to excellence. It’s the legacy Coach Snyder hopes the football program will leave. It’s also the legacy the team has visually represented on the locker room wall through a large graphic featuring players throughout the program’s history.

“When our players see those photos, we hope the pictures will say to them, ‘You are a part of something bigger here,’” says Coach Snyder. “We routinely talk to the guys about how the program isn’t just about when they’re in it. It’s about the legacy they’re leaving for the guys who follow them. It’s about who they’re going to be and how they’re going to play. That’s what stays for years to come.”

chimes Fall 2015Current Issue — Fall 2015

  • Engaging Babylon:Life as An Exile
  • Learning to Know Him
  • Cory Snyder: Christ, Character, and Commitment
  • Stirring Up
  • Where are they now?
  • Alumni Spotlighs

Read this issue online, in an interactive, turn-page edition.

Please email your updates, as well as a photo, if you wish, to chimes@wcastl.org. Alumni, parents, and friends, if you are not currently receiving a printed copy of the magazine, please email us or call 314.997.2900.

Read previous issues of the Chimes.

Revelation & Elegy | Meg Smith | TEDxUniversityofTulsa

Meg Smith ’13 recently gave a TEDx talk,  “Revelation & Elegy.”

Brant wins Publinx Open

In May, Ryan Haxel was featured in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when he scored a 65 in the Publinx Open – topping the amateur field at the spring 2015 tournament. Read more

Westminster Students Bring Robotics Fun to Summer Campers

Robotics is a family affair for Bethany Hoekzema ’08. Read about her collaboration with the Team4256 – Cyborg Cats at a summer camp for children.  Read more

The Science of Legal Bias | Andrew Winship | TEDxGatewayArch

Drew Kinship ’02recently gave a TEDx talk on the science of legal bias. Drew is founder/ CEO of Juristat and founder/ director of GlobalHack.

Ceramix

John Beadles ’84 has several ceramic pieces on display at the Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta Airport near the international terminal. The exhibit will be on display until spring 2016. Read more

Westminster benefits from ‘tremendous leadership’ on volleyball court

Coach Jean Daehn Evans ’83 led the boys varsity volleyball team to a state title this year. “I’m thrilled to win a state title, especially for my kids who have worked so hard,” says Jean. “We have had a lot of great kids come through our program, and many of our alumni come out to practices and help out. This title belongs to all of them.” Read more