What is a cairn?
A cairn is a human-made stack of stones raised for a significant purpose, usually to mark an important event or idea, or perhaps as a way to provide ancient directions or to indicate a gateway into a new land. These three purposes have been significant since the dawn of time, including famously in the Bible.
Following the famous “stairway to heaven” dream, Jacob takes the stone that he was sleeping on and sets it up as a marker of this occasion where heaven briefly met earth (Genesis 28:18-19). We read another famous account of a cairn following the story of the Israelites’ miraculous crossing of the Jordan River. Twelve stones are set up as a memorial with Joshua saying, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them . . . ‘the Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea. . . . He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful . . . ‘” (Joshua 4:21-24).
When we think about Christian schools operating faithfully, humbly, and courageously around our world, a cairn can be a powerful metaphor. In this latest installment of the Schools That Inspire series, we will use the three functions of a cairn boldfaced above to both honor the work of Cairn Christian School and illustrate the commitments and fruit of Christian schools everywhere.
An inspirational, Biblical educational vision
Cairn Christian School was launched in 1999 out of two legacy organizations started decades earlier. Cairn’s two JK-8 elementary locations, serving about 500 students, are both located in Ontario, Canada’s beautiful Niagara region. Given the number of Christian schools in the area, this region contains one of Canada’s strongest parental support bases for Christian education.
The tradition of starting, supporting, and growing Christian education in this area stretches back decades to primarily Dutch immigrants who believed it was central to their faith to build churches and launch Christian schools. This legacy lives on even while the school has become significantly more diverse, now drawing from over 50 church congregations in the area.
Cairn’s vision for learning is the following: To be the leaders in education by inspiring a diverse and unified student body to love, learn, and lead with God’s grace, bringing Christ’s love to the world. To bring this vision to life, Cairn has committed to a Christian pedagogical approach known as Teaching for Transformation (TFT). Taking a holistic view of Christian education that incorporates Abraham Kuyper’s “every square centimetre” idea (you may know the phrase as “every square inch,” but we Canadians use centimetres; to learn more, check out this world-renowned podcast), Cairn is building an educational vision that invites their students deeply into God’s story.
Cairn Function #1: Marking an important event or idea
Even as Christian school communities change as students graduate and teachers retire, the legacy of Christ formed in students has an eternal horizon. We know Christian schools make a difference in the faith formation and life trajectory of students, particularly over the course of a long-term parental partnership with the school community. In this sense, Christian schools around the world stand as cairns, marking the foundational Christian idea that human faith formation matters both now and eternally.
Cairn Christian School’s vision for student learning via their TFT commitment encourages teachers and students to participate in the unfolding Biblical narrative by establishing a Deep Hope. A Deep Hope is an important event or idea in itself. Once formulated in the mind, heart, and soul of a teacher, it functions as a North Star for the direction of the class and the formation of the students.
As you walk around Cairn, teacher Deep Hopes are displayed prominently in hallways right next to student-created teacher portraits—a signal that image-bearing is central to Christian learning. Deep hopes, born out of each unique image-bearer’s life, create alignment and focus all learning towards Christ’s work in us. For example, Mr. Lee’s Deep Hope is that “we show Christ’s life in us by our character, attitude, and compassion.”
Cairn Function #2: Providing ancient directions
Although it may now seem primitive to set up stones to help wayward travelers with a sense of direction, the concept from a faith-formation perspective has never been more relevant. Christian schools stand in the ancient tradition of the parent serving as the lead educator for their children. A child’s formation on all levels (social, emotional, physical, educational, spiritual) is most critically the responsibility of parents. When parents commit to sending their children to a Christ-centered school, they join in the long history of Christian parents who “tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord” (Psalm 78:4).
Cairn Christian School stands as a marker providing Biblical directions in our ever-changing culture. This is not to say that Cairn actively takes sides in contextual culture wars. Rather, Cairn’s leadership and board deeply desire to shape the school community into the likeness of Jesus in all facets.
On the school’s TFT journey, this pursuit means that following the creation of a Deep Hope, teachers and students embark on the process of joining in the Biblical story by creating a classroom Storyline for the year. The Storyline physically illustrates how the teacher and students are engaged in the ancient directions of the Biblical story in real, Jesus-centered ways. For example, Mrs. Kok’s class learns things in their head (Know) and then seeks to apply them in the real world and according to the Biblical story (Go). Currently her students are learning about different cultures (Know) and have partnered with a local non-profit, Micah House, to supply basic needs for refugees (Go).
Cairn Function #3: Indicating a gateway
In the story of Jacob’s stairway to heaven, he renames the place beth-el, which means “house of God.” The stone that Jacob set up was meant as a boundary or gateway of sorts, but not a typical one. In Jacob’s case (as well as for the Holy of Holies in the Temple, for example), the gateway served as an invitation for others to recall the sacred space where heaven and earth overlapped.
Following the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we learn that Christ-followers now function as “living temples” (2 Corinthians 6:16-18), literally places where heaven and earth meet—a high calling if there ever was one! In this sense, we Christians now serve as living cairns, indicating a gateway that is both holy and also invitational: we are to live our lives in such a way that Christ is honoured and others around us are inspired to follow Him more deeply themselves.
Cairn Christian School’s TFT journey includes a Deep Hope, a Storyline, but perhaps most significantly a Formative Learning Experience or FLEx. It is one thing to talk about the Biblical story; it is another thing entirely to join in and have our habits formed by the actions and rhythms we inhabit for the flourishing of ourselves and others (see James K. Smith’s excellent book, You Are What You Love).
For one such example from Cairn, Mrs. Winter’s Kindergarten class committed themselves to writing Christmas cards to military personnel who were deployed at Christmas time. The concept of inhabiting the Biblical story with “real work for real people” is a powerful way to engage culture and to teach students to “faithfully improvise” their role in the unfolding Biblical narrative.
Cairn Christian School is a place intentionally inhabiting the Biblical story. This cairn stands out as an inspirational marker, shaping hearts and minds for God’s glory!