The strange journey of confirmation class

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My most recent confirmation class.

In the life of our church, we baptize most of our children as infants and then raise them in the Christian faith. When they are eleven or twelve years old, I get to teach them the basics of the faith in a systematic way, using Luther’s Small catechism as a guide. After two years of weekly classes, we gather with family, friends and congregation for a “confirmation” of the blessings of their baptisms. That day is a reminder of God’s faithfulness as well as a public confession of their faith. My goal is to provide some tools and encourage them to continue to grow in their faith as they enter their high school years.

I believe I have taught thirty-two groups of middle schoolers. It is a fascinating, only-by-the-grace-of-God journey.

I enjoy teaching this age group because they have so many questions. Late-elementary aged children and high school students tend to think they have all the answers. But in middle school, you’ve learned to ask questions.

I also struggle to teach this age group because most of their parents haven’t done much with them since their baptisms. They may have come to some worship services or been in a few Sunday School classes. But on their twelfth birthday, an alarm goes off, and parents insist, “We have to get you to confirmation class!” Few students are familiar with – and some haven’t even heard of – basic stuff like the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed and the Ten Commandments. Many are cracking open a Bible (or a Bible app) for the first time. When I drop familiar names like Abraham, Moses, David and Paul, I’m interrupted with, “Who’s that?” Each year I am starting from scratch.

But that’s OK, because these students are smart! They are taking algebra and geometry, designing and programming robots, and creatively solving future problems. They are active, involved in athletics, music, dance, and scouts. While the digital world is a second language to me, they’re fluent in it.

It takes about two weeks for them to get comfortable with me. Once they know they can trust me and I am a person with a family, a job and a sense of humor, they let down their guard, their personalities come out, and some real learning can begin. While I want each student to have a growing relationship with the Lord, the second-best part of the journey is developing a relationship with me.

Each student claims they can’t memorize anything. Catechism? Bible verses? Can’t do it. Until we start talking about all the lyrics they can sing, movies they can quote, athletes they know everything about and video game strategies stored in their minds. Until I show them how to memorize with purpose. That exercise will serve them well in other areas of life, too.

Every student grows up a lot, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Especially over the summer between seventh and eighth grade. At the start of year two, everyone not only a few inches taller, but the guys start showering and combing their hair and the girls pay more attention to their hair and begin wearing makeup.

Sin and grace are, of course, big concepts to grapple with. Some students never get in trouble. Others constantly get yelled at by their teachers for no apparent reason. When we try and identify sins to confess, few can get beyond not picking up their room or fighting with a sibling. So the idea of forgiveness doesn’t quite have the same impact. Yet. In the course of the middle school years, they will encounter hatred, jealousy, injustice, bullying, and fear in their own lives or in the lives of their friends. That’s when grace begins to mean something.

I am sure I get more out of this journey than my students. I know from experience that those students who were not active in the church before confirmation classes will not be active after. Those who were will be. It’s that simple. It’s all about their family. I just plug in and do my best to help for a few years.

What do I get out of it?

  • I reinforce my own knowledge of Scripture and the Small Catechism. I am no less a child of God, struggling to remember and understand his promises, and come to grips with both sin and grace.
  • I see God’s Spirit at work in the baptized. I am humbled by how little I can do and how much He can do!
  • I see the timelessness of Scriptural truths. So much has changed in the last thirty-five years, but Jesus has remained the same. He is just as relevant for this generation as my own.
  • I have great hope for the church. While my days are numbered in ministry, theirs are just beginning. I tell them they would make good pastors and teachers leaders. To tell you the truth, someday I hope they are mine!
  • It keeps me young. When you hang out with young people, some of it rubs off on you. I thrive on their contagious energy, laughter and creativity.

It is just as much a journey for me as it is for them!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I’ve learned from teaching confirmation class this year

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 9.58.41 PMWe are down to just a few more weeks of confirmation instruction. One more lesson to go on the third article or the creed (resurrection and everlasting life), and then a review week for three students to be confirmed in April.

This will be the thirty-first time I’ve taught the catechism to seventh- and eighth- graders (with a few high schoolers tossed in from time to time). In some ways it gets easier the more you do it. In other ways it gets harder. But after all those years, I am still learning myself, and I thought I’d share some of those lessons.

  • With ten students all together, all of whom are busy with lots of other activities, I broadcast my classes on Facebook live. I learned how to use this convenient platform that saves the feed to watch later. Plus, I usually had about 75 assorted people tune in to watch a few minutes of the class, from all around the world.
  • I learned a lot, again, about how much young people grow and develop from the beginning of seventh grade and the end of eighth grade. This is the time when they discover who they are. They learn new skills, work together with new teams, ride waves of failure and success, and make me laugh in endless ways.
  • I learned that there are some I just cannot teach. I had to cry, “Uncle” when confronted by some of the behavioral challenges dumped into my class. I felt completely helpless when teaching students who were completely uncooperative and disruptive yet were intriguing in their comments. There are no seminary classes in special ed.
  • Kids have an appetite that just does not end. I brought pizza, Girl Scout cookies, fried chicken, and chips and salsa. I never brought enough. They will consume everything in their path. Like locusts.
  • I am getting old. The gap is widening. These kids are programming robots, living in virtual reality worlds, and communicating in so many different ways. I’m not. I’m just barely treading water in their world. RPGs? I’m not there. I don’t follow any You-tubers. I’m a dinosaur.

Teaching young people keeps me young – as young as I can be for now. I’m thankful for that little bit of eternal life!

Trust, old marinara and wet dog.

wet dogAs I reflect on last night’s confirmation class, I can’t get a couple of the student’s comments out of my mind.

The first came in the context of discussing the eighth commandment. I asked, “Do you know anyone with a really bad reputation.” Everyone shook their head yes, but one added some detail. “Everyone knows this kid is a liar, a thief and dishonest. But I trust him.” Every head turned and stared. “No really, he has my back.” Interesting choice of friends.

The other came in response to the casual question, “So how’s school?” “Ugh, I hate culinary arts! The classroom smells like a combination of old marinara and wet dog.” I’m familiar with both smells, but never thought to combine them.

Teaching confirmation class for seventh and eighth graders (and this year, a few in high school), is a unique experience for me and the young people. Altogether we met about fifty times over two years, getting to know a lot about each other. I get to know them better than many of those who joined the congregation as adults. They also get to know me better than most who attend worship. We develop a unique bond during this time.

s-Market-MarinaraThat relationship means so much. They may not remember everything I taught them. But they will know they can talk to me when life begins to happen, everything from graduations to children and beyond.

 

Maybe we need more discussions.

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Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

I knew it would be quiet. It usually is. Sixth commandment night at confirmation class: “You shall not commit adultery.”

The catechism’s explanation isn’t too risqué: “sexually pure and decent life in what you say and do” and “husband and wife love and honor each other.” But when you get down to the nitty-gritty, there’s plenty of giggles, shock and silence.

Where do we start? Right at the beginning. Male and female, be fruitful and multiply, hold fast, one flesh. God’s gift of sex is a good thing in the context of marriage.

However teacher and students live in a world where countless variations on that theme exist outside the marriage relationship. From pre-marital sex to same sex relationships to rape and incest, the discussion gets very real very quickly. As soon as we jumped in the deep end, one student remarked, “Pastor, you don’t have to talk this. My mom already tried. I told her we had teachers to explain it to us.”

I thought that was pretty interesting. From his point of view, this was a topic to be covered at school, not at home and certainly not at church! Though only a few wanted to admit it, I am sure they had all been exposed to the sexual variations I mentioned. Maybe more. They just didn’t want to talk about it.

Which is probably why we’ve got a lot of the problems we do. Teen pregnancies, chronic STDs, more charges of harassment every day. Maybe a few discussions with our middle schoolers can make a dent. Maybe a few discussions at home, too.

 

Taking the fifth

Screen Shot 2017-10-31 at 2.30.11 PMLast night was fifth commandment night in confirmation class. “You shall not murder.” So we ran through the gamut of the best known killing sins, from murder to abortion to euthanasia to suicide to manslaughter.

I guess my lesson gets pretty gruesome as I describe each, because several of the students bemoaned, “Do we have to talk about this?” “That’s horrible!” “Why are we even discussing this?” Which I find very interesting, because they are all gamers to some extent. They spend time in virtual worlds shooting people, crashing cars, blowing up zombies, and waging war. But when you actually sit down to talk about real killing, they get uncomfortable.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. We spend a lot of time in a virtual world of sorts, where shootings, explosions, fires, storms and epidemics fill our news feeds. Most of them don’t directly touch our lives, so it doesn’t bother us too much. It’s not till you sit down and talk about real killing — on your street, in your family, at the school — that we start to pay attention.

Maybe we need to talk about that more. We need to talk about what it really means to take care of someone in hospice, or with an unexpected pregnancy, or who has killed in war or law enforcement. Perhaps then we would understand the depth of this commandment and the importance of life to our Creator. We would better understand what we think are the “lesser” killing sins: anger, hate, bullying and hurtful language. We would better grasp what it means to take care of our lives, exercising, eating right, and getting enough. And maybe – just maybe – we would be moved to take care of others’ lives.

But if the class was uncomfortable talking about death, just wait. The sixth commandment is up next. Time to talk about sex!

Ten for ten

screen-shot-2017-10-17-at-5-06-39-pm.pngFor the first time this year, I had all ten of my confirmation class students together. Trust me, in a world where there is so much going on in the lives of our children and their families, this is nothing short of a miracle!

The students range in age from twelve to sixteen, from sixth grader to high school junior. They are all involved in other activities during the week, including but not limited to: band (three tubas and two clarinets), orchestra (violin), golf (at the state championship level; one young lady can drive 250 yds!), flag-football, boy scouts (one on the way to eagle), girl scouts, youth group, and future problem solving (with international competition experience). It’s a diverse group with interests that range from fried-chicken to robotics to “The Big Bang Theory” to their various pets.

It is such a dynamic time of life for them. Each is now just discovering their talents, passions and relationships as we learn how our Lord and faith affect every part of our lives. I’m fascinated. Our conversations take totally unexpected and bizarre directions every week. I was watching the video stream of last week’s class as we covered so many ideas about the third commandment and worship.

At one point, I told how some ancient civilizations made human sacrifices to appease their gods. That was their form of worship. One of the students shared that how they probably sacrificed the best looking people to please the gods, so it was better to be ugly and have ugly children. I said, “Imagine if that’s the way they did things in band?” After auditions, we’ll cut the best player from each section. By the end of the year, the band would sound horrible!

Some heard for the fist time that Jesus was Jewish. And that according to Old Testament law you weren’t allowed to eat shellfish. And how shellfish are bottom feeders, which is yukky. We discussed whether or not chickens have vocal chords (if not, how do they say, “bock?”) and whether or not it is OK to have a job that requires you to work seven days a week and words that my dog knows (bark, ruff and woof).

I’ve been teaching confirmation class for over thirty years, and it never gets old. Thank goodness for the catechism, laughter, and the joy of the Lord!