Lent, Week Four: Dangerous and Safe

Right, so, this is crazy late, I realize.  I had half a post all set up and then went and had an absolutely ridiculous weekend that involved, among other things, my car breaking down in a different state than the one in which I live and me almost getting squashed by a semi and having to call friends to help me out.

I’m okay.  I’m just saying, it’s been intense.  So this is hella late.  Think of it less like I completely missed last week and more like this is a Spiritual Implications two-for-one post sale this week.  Bogo, y’all.

Many of my friends will exasperatedly tell you that I don’t have a good nose for danger.  It’s not that I’m stupid or even unobservant; I just don’t think about consequences properly (and I’m crazy stubborn) before I barge into all manner of situations that are Pretty Bad Ideas in retrospect.  Most of the time these are moments of physical danger in that I’ll put myself in a place where my bodily well-being is at risk.  Sometimes it’s emotional danger, when I am around people or events that threaten my psychological balance.  And, while some would scoff at the possibility, I’ve even been in spiritual danger, placing my soul in compromised situations.  The friend who rescued me by driving up yesterday to retrieve me from the shop where my car is (and yes, it totally feels like I’m missing a piece of myself to have it be seventy miles away) has informed me there will be so much yelling for my having gone off and taken a road trip with a car I knew was in poor condition.  I’m pretty sure I also freak Interpreter out a lot with how many times I cheat death in the choices I make.  The excuse “it’s worked so far” will only hold so long, I realize.

danger-signMy courting of danger is actually hilarious because I am in no way a thrill-seeker by nature.  I’m actually pretty cautious and I don’t do things that are deliberately meant to raise chemical levels of danger (Will Robinson) response (roller coasters, bungee jumping, skydiving, etc.—count me the eff out).  But I decide quite often that I need to do something or get somewhere and damned be whatever gets in my way, including safety and sanity.  I don’t recommend it as a life strategy.  It irks your friends.

But that concept of danger is such a weird thing, and actually an appropriate Lenten topic—after all, the Adversary took Jesus to the top of the Temple and told Him to jump, daring Him to cheat danger on the idea that safety was certain.  The kind of danger I court is ill-advised, for sure.  And the kind of danger the world provides is awful; my heart grieves for London.  But there’s a certain kind of danger in being faithful that we are asked to walk into knowingly:  a danger to who we are.

I realize that sounds like the set-up for some terrible pun (are you a pilot?  Because we’re about to enter the danger zone) or pick-up line or something, but I don’t mean it that way.  I’m quite serious; faith should challenge your notions of who you and the people around you are.  It should be a dangerous undertaking, not to our physical selves but to our selfishness, our ideas of self-preservation, our priorities.  Jesus tells people to take up a cross, for crying out loud.  Those kill people.

The difference is that in the kind of danger that I find myself in involving sketchy motels in nowhere towns on dark and rainy nights there is no bedrock guarantee of safety.  When Jesus asks us to stretch, to risk, to grow and change and Go Forth into the world, we don’t do it alone.  We step out in the faith that God will not ask us to do something that will completely and irrevocably fuck us up, because sadistic god is not a god I want anything to do with.  This is not to say that we should just go with whatever we feel is being asked of us; after all, the Adversary was quoting Scripture when he told Jesus to trust that angels would catch Him.  We have to be wise as serpents in the world because it is indeed a dangerous place.  But that, too, is part of the faith life:  learning what God’s voice sounds like and how it differs from the sounds that try to drag you into that which is truly and alarmingly dangerous.

Stay safe, Reader, but not so safe that you can’t act in the many ways God can use you.  And don’t mess with semis.  They are not kidding around.

 

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  (Psalm 23:4, AKJV)

Lent, Week Three: Healed and Broken

I went to see Logan this evening; I love the comic book films, love the characters and worlds and adventures and connections.  And for the longest time I loved the action part of action films—I loved a good fight scene where the hero (rarely a heroine) takes down all the bad guys with fists of fury and a kick-ass rock song.

But this—this film was all anger, sorrow, and pain.  I can’t do this level of gore and rage anymore, can’t absorb the sheer amount of ache that we as a culture have reached.  We are in so much pain, Reader; the sickened edges of our never-healed wounds of racism fester in our bellies, the blood we spill on our streets and everyone else’s leaves us weak and stumbling, our throats are raw from throwing up the vapid and unhealthy bullshit we have tried to convince ourselves is any kind of nourishment.  Our illness colors our news, our music, our pastimes and yes, our movies.

healing-touch-sold_We need healing.

It’s funny; I started writing this while half-listening to a Christian radio station and three songs in a row now have dealt with the concept of healing.  Part of that is the Spirit reading over my shoulder, but more of it is that Christianity has a lot to say about healing and the need for it.  After all, one of the many terms for God is “Healer.”

But from what?  Of what?  Oh no, Christiana, don’t be one of those Christians who equate spiritual sin with emotional and bodily malaise, as though some people deserve to be punished with illness.  No, Reader—my best friend has a disease that is frying his brain a little bit more every day, stripping it of its effectiveness.  My good friend’s wife is fighting a cancer that sits sullenly in her femur, spine, and chest.  I myself am gradually going deaf because my body cannot recognize the way it’s supposed to work in order to hear.  I can’t believe in a god who would cause such prolonged torment to satisfy reparation of sin.  That’s sadism, and I don’t roll with a sadistic God.

There’s something to be said, though, for the gulf between Christianity’s language of healing and the reality of just how broken we are in so many ways.  Do we keep breaking ourselves, outpacing God as we find new ways to inflict pain?  Do we never allow ourselves to fully heal, running pell-mell into the next ill-thought thing before our bodies and souls have had time to re-knit?  Perhaps.  I am most certainly guilty of both of these, especially when it comes to myself.  How I haven’t more seriously injured myself on a number of levels, I don’t know.  But I am certainly not whole.  I am broken.

In the film—which I can’t say that I recommend, although it is incredibly well acted, because it is so incredibly violent; there’s a great breakdown of it through the lens of its relationship to religion here—an underlying theme is that you’re never so broken you can’t be at least on the way to healing.  Everybody gets a chance at redemption, at reclaiming the best part of themselves; some take it, some don’t.  Healing comes from being willing to walk back to what you could have been.

I was recently reading an article for class about John Wesley’s ideas of healing and that he had no problem whatsoever with both medicine and prayer as effective tools of healing.  He also never blamed sick people for getting sick.  We live in mortal bodies that are constantly falling apart.  We should definitely take better care of them (preaching to myself) but we can’t stop our own mortality.  We are not Wolverine, able to heal almost instantly, and yelling at sick people about what they should be able to do is both foolish and cruel.  I appreciate that the vast majority of Biblical references to healing have no truck with blaming the broken.  Do they have to do things, like get up or reach out for a hem?  Yes.  Healing requires work on our part.  But do they get shamed into being well?  Nope.  We are all of us broken, so what good would shame do?  How silly is it for one mortal to tell another mortal that their mortality is shameful?

I realize that I’m switching back and forth between a lot of different kinds of healing and brokenness, but that’s a little deliberate (and a little due to my mind being in about fourteen different places right now).  I think it’s all of piece not in that your soul makes you have cancer but that sickness isn’t just a physical thing.  When I am sick—and I’ve been fortunate in never being long-term, all-the-time sick—I definitely notice an impact on my spiritual and emotional self.  And when I’m aware of my broken spirituality, it takes a toll on my physical commitments.

You may choose, good Reader, to push back on any and all of my assertions.  Perhaps, for you, the spirit has nothing to do with the body, or perhaps you’re really uncomfortable with my equating sick and broken because those mean different things to you.  Please, challenge me.  But recognize that in this wilderness of Lent, we are not whole, and we are not healthy.  Even Jesus needed angels at the end to put Him back together from the stress of the environment and the temptations.

I simply want us to consider, as I have been doing in light of the film, where our brokenness is.  Where do we need healing?  What can we do about that, in both the “non-miraculous” medical and the “miraculous” prayer sense?  (Yes, I put those in quotes because I think it’s a false dichotomy.)  And where are we healed that we can celebrate?  Where, in this desert of forty Lenten days, do we already see the bright edges of Easter?

 

 

Jesus and his disciples came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch and heal him.  Taking the blind man’s hand, Jesus led him out of the village. After spitting on his eyes and laying his hands on the man, he asked him, “Do you see anything?”  The man looked up and said, “I see people. They look like trees, only they are walking around.”  Then Jesus placed his hands on the man’s eyes again. He looked with his eyes wide open, his sight was restored, and he could see everything clearly.  (Mark 8:22-25, CEB)

Lent, Week Two: Light and Dark

Right, so I know I said we were going to work with the elements of the wilderness but the Blogging Spirit says pairs.  So we’re going pairs.

It snowed this morning here in the Wicket Gate; this is remarkable because this is the American South and it doesn’t really snow all that often here.  It was warm even before global warming.

4ab51967138a6856445430523bbfce5dThis is also remarkable because I absolutely love snow.  I love it.  I love the way it slows everything down, I love the slight weight of it as it falls, I love the silence it engenders, I love the chill of it and the sting the air bites into your cheeks, I love the way snow outlines everything and makes every single twig and parapet a white exclamation point against dark tree bark and grey shingles.  I love the snow.  And it has affected me more than I realized that it doesn’t really snow here—I apparently count on winter as a breathing respite far more than I knew and I think the lack of it has contributed a lot to how overwhelmed and de-centered I’ve felt.  So the snow today was a precious gift and I literally skipped through it across one of the major roads singing My Favorite Things to myself because it was beautiful and there were so few cars it was laughable and running errands in that kind of silence was so, so wonderful.

Light in the darkness.

After getting ink (a necessary though expensive reality, especially now that printers have been programmed not to recognize the cheaper off-brand cartridges) I took myself out to brunch for a sandwich at one of the local fast-food places.  The life of the student is a glamorous flirtation with the poverty line, something I point out not to get into an appeal for money or onto my soapbox on the stupidity that we as a society feel students somehow “deserve” to be poor but to underscore that breakfast out isn’t something I do every day.  As I was sitting down at the restaurant, a man came up to me and asked if I had a dollar to spare so he could get breakfast.  It’s unusual, even here in the city, for someone to come into a place to ask like that; there’s kind of an unspoken agreement that begging as a transaction remains outside, but like I said, it was snowing.  Hunger can prompt some incredible things that we would never have thought ourselves capable of, and hunger with cold demands to be fixed.  Mindful of having recently preached a sermon on Jesus’ differentiation between the hunger of the body and of the spirit, I said come on, I’ll buy you a value meal breakfast, I can do that much.  I intended to have him eat with me since I think that giving money without even the attempt to build connection isn’t helpful to anybody.

We went up to the counter and I gestured him ahead, determined not to speak for him, trying desperately to figure out how this would work since I’m bad at small talk and I really just wanted to watch the snow.  He ordered some eight or nine things, still not an exorbitant cost because it’s a cheap place but way over what I was prepared to spend, especially after having spent so much on the ink.  I didn’t know what to do; I had not expected him to take liberty of my offer, which is perhaps woefully naive.  A manager passing by stopped and said no, he was just in here with someone else; apparently this man had been working the system all morning, waiting for new customers to cycle in and then getting them to buy him more things.  She asked if I still wanted to continue with the transaction and I said no, I couldn’t afford what he was asking, cancel it out.  He asked me when he was going to get his food and I said I can’t give you what you want, I can do this and nothing more.  He looked at me disbelievingly and left.

Darkness in the light.

I tell you this not to say that all beggars are crooks (they certainly aren’t) nor that I’m a saint for having tried (goodness, no).  I wish I could tell you how to respond to those who ask for alms, I really do; I feel like, especially as a pastor, I’m supposed to have some kind of answer for how to react, when to give money and when not, what to say.  I don’t know any of that.  I’m awful and uncomfortable and conflicted as all get-out when it comes to these kinds of interactions.  I tell you this because it is so incredible to me to have it juxtaposed against the beautiful snow, the crisp clarity of the flakes nearly lost in the murky confusion of how to look another human being in the eye and say I cannot give you what you want.

Darkness, and light.

When Jesus looks Satan in the eye and says I will not give you what you want after He is starving in the wilderness, after His face has become chapped not from the cold but from the sun that burns and the wind that scratches sand across the skin, does He hesitate?  Does He wish there was a manual of how to interact with this, how to look at the darkness and still be the light?  Or is He the manual, sure-footed and strong even in His exhaustion, knowing that the light will always win out?  Here in the wilderness I wonder, aware that God is in the snow and the stranger and wishing I understood what She wants of me in either situation.

 

In him there was life. That life was light for the people of the world.  The Light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overpowered the Light.  (John 1:4-5, ICB)

Lent, Week One: Hot and Cold

Happy first Friday of Lent, Reader, if such a thing can be deemed “happy.”  Lent, though traditionally a pretty rough space for me, is actually a good time to go internal and take stock of one’s faith journey.  It also happens to start smack in the middle of midterms this year, which I think is God foregoing actually saying anything and just chucking me out in the wilderness.

It’s been a really, really long week.

Part of it, though, was officiating for the very first time at an Ash Wednesday service.  There’s one other student pastor at the church where I serve now and she and I were put in charge of the entire service:  plan it, prep it, preach it.  So we did; we met twice to plan what hymns we wanted and write the liturgy.  We each wrote half of the sermon and then preached it as alternating voices.  We got to the church early to move furniture and set the scene, making sure everything was in place just as it needed to be.

And, human endeavor that it was, things went wrong.  My lapel mic came off my robe just as I stood to begin the sermon—I seriously should get all of the theatre points for how calmly I grabbed it and reattached it.  Then there was a bat that decided to join us for a couple of laps around the sanctuary in the middle of the sermon.  Yes, a bat.  I’m not kidding.  And I nearly ran out of oil as I was working my way through the ashes.  This is what the pastoral life is, Reader; it’s super human.  Sorry if that’s breaking any cherished notions for you.

6c3ae1418d0d0367d1ae643ae283d3e6But it’s also incredibly holy.  This is the second time in my life I’ve ever put ashes on someone else, and the only other time was on Interpreter and that had all sorts of emotional complications going on.  But this; this was feeling the oil and cold ash against my thumb, feeling the warmth of people’s skin as I placed my fingertips at their temples and drew the sign of the cross.  This was standing by the Christ candle and watching its flame flicker against the semi-darkness of our shadowed sanctuary.  This was hearing What Wondrous Love Is This roll down out of the choir loft behind me and remembering the times I have hummed that to myself on the chancel steps back home when I felt so completely separated from God and so terribly cold in my very soul.  This was raising my hands in benediction to this congregation with whom God has entrusted me and feeling the fiery warmth of praying that I will be worthy of that trust, of praying that they will be open to God’s Spirit.  The pastoral life is a terrifying and electrifying gift.

As we move throughout these forty days, I want to take a page out of the sermon my friend and I preached this past Wednesday in terms of imagining and fleshing out the story of the wilderness to which we’re called in this season.  What does our wilderness look like?  How does the temperature vary, with the extremes of heat and cold that such landscapes have?  Where are the rocks upon which we trip?  What plants struggle towards the rain that rarely comes?  Let us imagine ourselves into this space, Reader.  Let us name our wilderness, that we may hear our names from the One Who walks it with us.

 

Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness.  (Exodus 14:19-20, ESV)

Egypt and Other False Hopes

Why yes, I am writing this instead of the sermon and two papers I need to be writing.  Welcome to divinity school.

Just so you know, it has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad few weeks.  Even in Australia.  Part of it being so bad is that all the spheres of my life are currently out of whack.  My friends and I have been in some weird spaces, school is frustrating and exhausting at best, my three jobs are financially unhelpful and not terribly life-giving, my faith is a wild mess, the political scene is terrifying and sorrow-inducing, and my car now has a crunched bumper and a tail-light magnificently patched together by Interpreter and jank as all get-out.

Nearly everything is not good.

Perhaps that laundry list resonates with you, Reader—I sure hope not, but if it does know that I hate everything right now, too.  I’m weary; not just tired, but worn to strange edges that constitute no recognizable shape.  I’ve found myself wondering a lot lately why I moved here to the Wicket Gate, why I left the Land of Pilgrims, why I’m in divinity school.

In short, why I left Egypt.

I don’t pull in the metaphor to say that the Land of Pilgrims was at all comparable to slavery (far from it; part of it was home in a way I’d never experienced before, but part of it was completely unhealthy), and I know I’m not the first to connect the complaining Israelites to modern angst with God’s leadership.  But I’ve never felt so clearly that connection.  I am soul-sore, spiritually thirsty, and starving for hope.  Of course I’m going to say to Moses that we should never have left, that at least in Egypt we were fed, that selling my soul wasn’t so bad—at least it was safe.  And it was; I was by no means rich in the Land of Pilgrims, but I was stable.  I didn’t have the fanciest place to live, but it was mine and it was home.  I hated my job, but my church sustained me.  I had community.  I had a life.

And here, in this in-between place, I don’t have that.  I have a banged-up car and more student loans and disappointing professors and damn it, God, why did You make me leave Egypt?

Because God had other plans—plans to which I agreed as I sang my little self across the dry Red Sea, as a I said okay, God, I trust You so much I’ll even get a tattoo to commemorate it.  I left my Egypt because it was killing me to stay and every one of my beautiful, caring friends saw it.  I left because the wilderness was terrifying but wide open in possibility.  And I left because God said come on, we’re moving, and I said, okay.

I now have three jobs in which I regularly practice pastoral relationship even as I am learning what that even means.  I helped a friend move this morning and then we sat on his stoop in the chilly sunshine and just were with each other, which is one of the best ways I re-energize in a relationship.  I got to simply be with Interpreter last weekend while he patched up my car and patiently answered my questions about how it’s put together because I know zilch about cars.  I get to go back to Egypt this summer for an internship that will probably kill me but will definitely change me.

13This wilderness is not accidental.  Do I need to change some things to make it healthier?  Yes.  Moses had to pull water from rocks and the Israelites ate raining bread; the wilderness isn’t mean to be experienced without change.  And it isn’t meant to be itself a destination; the Israelites were looking for the Promised Land.  I am looking to be ordained (which sometimes feels as far from a Promised Land as possible, but hey).  And sometimes, the wilderness lasts longer than intended—it took the Israelites forty years to go a distance that should have taken a month at most.  But even on the worst days when you are freaking sick of bread and your feet hurt and your throat is parched and you have run out of travelling jokes completely, going back to Egypt is not a helpful choice.  I could indeed go back to the Land of Pilgrims and, I’m sure, settle into a lovely and comfortable life.  But it would be turning my back on all that God is asking of and offering to me, all of the ways that I am growing and changing and learning, all of the impact I’m having on others even as they are impacting me.

This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the day that kicks off Lent.  In the Lenten season Christians remember the forty days in the wilderness that Jesus spent, itself an echo of the forty years of the Israelites.  We hold all of who we are to the Light in preparation for the incredible celebration of Easter, the central point of our faith in which we proclaim a risen Christ Whose love overturns even Death.  Easter is a party—but the wilderness is my current reality, even as it itself is shot through with Easters.

Walk the wilderness with me, Reader.  If you feel comfortable, let me know some of what your desert looks like.  Slough off the idea that going back to Egypt is going to help.  And please; remind me to do the same.

 

 And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why hast thou dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt?   Is this not what we told thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.  (Exodus 14:11-12, JUB)

Lent, Week Seven: Anointing the Sick

My apologies for how late this post is this week, Reader.  On top of the usual reality that Good Friday is complicated for me, my car died Thursday.  For a wannabe pastoral type, of course the best time to be without transportation is Maundy Thursday leading into the Paschal Triduum.  Fortunately, my music director was willing to give me a ride to work, my coworker loaned me her car so I could get to class, and then Interpreter graciously ferried me around for the rest of the day and then on Friday.  It helps that he and I were already going to the same places—it’s church week, y’all—but it was still a moment of grace for him to step in and for me to let him.  It’s hard to be dependent on another; it’s hard not to feel like an imposition, a burden.  But in letting that happen while I waited for my dear car to be resurrected (how apropos, no?) we got to talk with each other, break down events with each other, talk shop and not talk at all.  We’re both introverts, after all, so sometimes we are perfectly happy just to pay attention to the road and say nothing.

I do now have my car back (thanks be to God, although my checkbook doesn’t agree) and that is good because I truly don’t live a life of a format or in a place that can count on rides from others and public transportation.  But it was an unlooked for gift, I think, to have that time of simply being with a friend and of seeing the generosity of others.

So what does that have to do with the one remaining sacrament?  Not much, on the surface.  The anointing of the sick, formerly known as Last Rites or Extreme Unction, is very much about humans and not cars.  But it is (even still in the Catholic Church, though they’ve changed the name and broadened the parameters) about death.  This sacrament was originally the last connection in this life to God’s grace; it served as an outward sign just before death that God was on both sides of that great divide with the person dying.  Now it includes those who are very ill and may yet survive, but the concept is the same; “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”

I saved this sacrament for last because I knew it would fall on this holy weekend, Reader.  I realize that technically Lent ended Thursday night, but we are still in the wilderness.  Perhaps we are even more so, because right now our tradition states that Jesus’s body, broken and bloodied and stabbed, lies entombed.  Christ has died.

One of the most awful of the Seven Last Words to me is the one often left in Hebrew (or Aramaic, if you go with Mark):  Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?  (“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”)  In the hour of His death, Jesus had no one to administer the reminder of grace; no priest hovered in the approaching darkness to reassure Him that the Light would not be overcome.  He was Himself the Light, and He died.

I don’t say this to get into a theological argument of how God can desert Himself but to underscore that death is the one thing we can reliably count on to freak us all the hell out.  It is the one thing that we concretely know happens and don’t know much about.  We persons of faith have lots of ideas, sure, but we don’t know.  We can’t.  Death is beyond all of us; only One has ever come back from it, and He didn’t spend any time at all talking about what it was like.  So to have a ritualized reminder that God is there with us even in that most unnerving of hours is an amazing thing; we are not left alone as Jesus was, we are not forsaken in that time of great need.

Because Jesus was.

Here’s the amazing thing I re-learn every Good Friday—Sunday is coming.  Here on Holy Saturday when Jesus is not in the story, is not in this world, when His disciples huddle together in a room that holds memories now painful and stare blankly at each other wondering what they missed and what else they could have done right, there are birds chirping outside my window.  The slowly dropping sun slants in through my front window and makes my silver-edged table shine, the empty glass on it sparkling in the light.  Soon I will head out for an Easter vigil service and then wake far too early in the morning to go to a sunrise Easter service because Death did not win.  Yes, Christ has died, but Christ is risenand Christ will come again.

If I don’t fully believe that, I need to start playing for a different team.

But in believing that—and doubting it and fighting with it and being totally confused by it and worrying about it and celebrating it—I myself am still confronted by Death.  My best friend will die, my favorite uncle will die, my first love will die, my last grandparent will die.  But in that space of standing on Death’s threshold and feeling his hand reach for ours, we do not have to be alone.  In this sacrament or merely the spirit of it (for those of us who aren’t Catholic) we are reminded that Jesus has stood here and taken that hand and will come back for us every time.

So I know it’s a few hours early, Reader, but let me hear it all the way up here in the Land of Pilgrims:  Christ has risen.

Christ has risen indeed!

 

And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.  And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.  (Mark 16:1-2, AKJV)

Lent, Week Six: Confirmation

I love that this fell in for this week because I’m heading off on a retreat with my confirmands once I leave work—mixed feelings about that because I’m tired as all get out from not having slept well and having a lot on my mind and in my life and Lord, but I don’t want to deal with kids who can’t be bothered to actually, you know, care.  But I also know that these things present amazing possibilities for the kids (and us adults, to be sure!) to think about things in new ways, to see new things, to grow and change and discover.

And that’s what confirmation is.  In the Catholic Church, this is one of the three Sacraments of Initiation (along with baptism and the Eucharist); it didn’t make it into the Holy Pair for us non-Catholics because it doesn’t explicitly show up anywhere in the Bible (sola scriptura, you know) but it’s still important in a lot of the mainstream denominations who do infant (rather than adult) baptisms.  It’s sort of baptism’s sequel, The Return of the Spirit.

Confirmation is the cognizant commitment to the Christian life.  For the denominations who only do adult baptism it’s part of that rite and so doesn’t merit its own consideration, but for the paedobaptists (didn’t know you’d be getting your Greek in today, did you?) there’s no way that the baptizee can make these kinds of promises.  The parents (grandparents/godparents/foster parents/whatever) make the promises on behalf of the kid:  we promise that we believe in one God and will raise the kid to know Who God is, we reject the temptations of Satan and will teach him/her to do the same, we will remain loyal to Christ and His Church and will nuture this kid in this family of faith, etc.  Whether the parentals actually follow through on these promises is kind of their problem (well, and that of the whole church, because in most denominations there’s a line in the baptismal rite for the congregation to bind themselves to this new creation), but confirmation is when that kid gets to say these things for him/herself.

So baptism has to come first (which is really fun when a kid hasn’t been baptized before so we do that and then about five minutes later have to say as part of the confirmation liturgy “remember your baptism”), but baptism isn’t the end of the story.  Neither is confirmation, for that matter, which is hard to get both kids and their parents to understand.  Confirmation isn’t the finish line of faith—it’s the start, it’s the moment when you step into your own as an adult (in the sense that no one is living this for you now).  It’s a pretty intense thing, especially when it’s presented as a true choice.

My church goes to some lengths to ensure that the kids going through the two-year-long process (7th and 8th grade) of confirmation understand that it is totally acceptable for them to say, at the end, “No thanks, this isn’t for me” and not become a member of the church or get confirmed.  I have been part of churches that did not make that effort, continuing to push kids forward through the ceremony as though it were just another graduation that you had to do where you memorize some stuff and suddenly you’re a church member.  That cheapens this sacrament, I think, even though most wouldn’t consider it a sacrament.  But it is; it is a sacred thing for a person to say either “I want to know more about this faith and will myself claim God as my God even though I don’t completely understand that” or “I don’t see these beliefs in myself and do not wish to swear to stuff with which I don’t agree.”  Both of these are holy things because both of these are autonomous moments of choice.

One of the really big Theological Things in Christianity is this idea of Free Will (well, unless you’re a Calvinist).  This can get a bit tetchy because of the whole omniscient-and-all-powerful-God thing, but for me I really love that there is this moment built right into the Christian life that says our choice matters.  We are not only encouraged but mandated to make a choice about where we stand with God—and that’s not to say that we can’t change our minds either direction later (trust me, our understanding of God has to be mutable or it would never work), but it is to say that we have to make a public stand.  For all the noise of 21st-century America, we don’t actually like to take public stands all that often.  And trying to do so when you’re 13?  Yeah, right!  You don’t even want to take a public stand on whether or not you like your own hair at that age, let alone how you understand a faith connected to organized religion.  So surely this is a special kind of torture that we enact on poor kids.

But it’s not.  “Tweens,” as they’re now called, have no voice anywhere.  They are just old enough to realize that they have thoughts that may not match the adults around them or even their friends, but no one wants to hear them.  They have no rights anywhere and are constantly told how whiny, ungrateful, lazy, and moody they are—I know this because I have said these things to my confirmands who most certainly have been all four of those.

And yet.

The Church—that monolithic scary thing that everyone says is dying because apparently no one has ever met a caterpillar—takes this time to give kids the space to say what they believe about God, which is kind of the most important thing.  We adults have done what we can to bring them this far; now it’s their turn to own who they are as children of the Spirit or own that God won’t smite them if they walk away.

Yeah, that’s pretty sacred.

 

Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young, but be an example for other believers in your speech, behavior, love, faithfulness, and purity.  (1 Timothy 4:12, ISV)