In confirmation class, I teach half of Luther’s Small Catechism each year. This means its been two years since I taught the Ten Commandments, and specifically tonight, the sixth comandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”
I was made very aware of how much has changed in this world in just those last two years when I asked the class, “Do you believe that marriage is held in high regard today?” Across the board they answered, “No.” One answered, “It’s so easy to get a divorce that people don’t expect their marriage to last very long.” Another twelve-year old explained, “Marriage is a social construct from a time when women couldn’t work and support themselves. That is no longer true, and marriage is no longer a necessary part of life.” I know. Wow.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had to remind them that things like gender, sexuality, marriage and family are divine constructs, not a social invention. Though everyone of them have been present and active in church their whole lives, the sacred story of life takes a back seat to the scientific explanation of their world.
This year’s class consists largely of STEM nerds who love musical theater, will sing Evening Prayer and Vespers with me, and planned a whole Christmas party for our class. They see the world through memes, love Jesus, and can eat for days. They are one of the best groups I’ve had for a long, long time.
From time to time, I will bring in a snack for the Monday night confirmation class. The usual fare will include cookies, chips and salsa or queso, perhaps a bag of pretzels. Or, I’ll let them request a snack. When they’ve provided input, we’ve had waffles, funnel cakes (yep, I made ’em), ice cream sundaes, and pizza.
This year’s class is different in many ways. Creative, inquisitive, intelligent and eccentric. When I asked, “What do you want for snack next week” they answered, “Bananas and sauce.” Not a difficult request, but certainly not typical. No pizza? No candy? Nope, bananas and sauce.
At first, I didn’t take them seriously. I brought in some left over chocolate cookies from a previous week. Immediately, they challenged, “What about the bananas and sauce?”
The next week, I complied. I bought a bunch of bananas along with some chocolate fudge sauce and butterscotch sauce. You should have seen the look on their faces. From disbelief to delight, they enjoyed every bite. They loaded their plates with both sauces, peeled their bananas and dipped them in, savoring that sweet moment of bananas and sauce.
Chocolate fudge was the favorite by far. But I had little of either sauce leftover. And there were no leftover bananas. While some abstained, others ate two or three.
This also led to the discussion of how you should eat your banana. Shell on or off. I have always completely peeled my banana before eating. But as it turns out, I’m in the minority. Most peel just enough to take a few bites, and them peel some more. Interesting. I’ve always completely unwrapped a candy bar before eating it, too. But that’s just me.
I digress. I never even thought of eating bananas with sauce. It certainly was a hit for this class as we worked hard on the second commandment. Our snacks will never be the same. I have a feeling we will soon return to this moment and revisit bananas and sauce!
At the end of last week’s confirmation class, I asked, “Anyone have any questions?” We had just begun our unit on the Ten Commandments and worked our way through the first commandment. We talked a lot about idols and what it means to fear, love and trust God above all things. I expected the question to be related to our discussion. Foolish me.
The last minute question posed to me was, “In Holy Communion, how many bites of bread and how many sips of wine would you need before you consumed an entire Jesus?” To tell you the truth, I’ve never been asked that before. The young man who asked had a very creative mind and I beleve his question was sincere.
I told him, “If by faith you receive all the benefits of forgiveness, life and salvation whenever you eat and drink in Holy Communion, then you get everything Jesus did for us. You get all of him every time, not just a little bit.” He paused a moment, then said, “Oh. OK. Thanks.”
That’s why I like to teach the middle school students. You get those kinds of questions!
So I believe this is my thirty-fourth year teaching confirmation class for middle school students. I teach this class weekly during the school year for two years, covering half of the Small Catechism each year. This year I have eight students, four of whom are new and four returning students who will be confirmed next spring.
On my drive home last night, it occurred to me that I am now fifty years older than my students. That is two generations of space between us. On the one hand, that makes me feel old. On the other, it makes me feel young. For about ninety minutes each week, I enter their world, teaching them the timeless of truths of God’s Word. I love hearing how the Gospel applies to their world, which is a very different place than when I grew up.
This year I have a parent sitting in each week so I’m not alone with the class. Last night’s mom commented after class, “I feel like I should go home and slap both of my girls!” (She has two in the class.) I told her that wouldn’t be necessary. I’ve gotten used to the unique dynamic of teaching twelve to fourteen year old youth.
I like a lot of interaction, questions and answers, shock and awe, and of course, laughter. So to the casual observer, the class looks and sounds chaotic. There are often several conversations going on at the same time. We change subjects often. We pursue wild tangents. Amazingly, we just about always end up at the Gospel, which is the whole point, right?
Here are a few things I’ve noticed that haven’t changed and a few that are radically different in the lives of the middle school youth that I get to teach.
Algebra and Geometry are still hard. (I never thought so, but I’m a math guy. I liked that stuff.) We sometimes plot graphs, solve quadratic equations and do a couple of proofs, just for my amusement.
Every kid in this year’s class has an iPhone. No Android devices in this group. From what I understand, phones are mostly used to watch YouTube and look at memes. Most have a Bible app loaded, but I make them use a print version for most of the class. Siri is an entertaining ninth person in the class, too.
Teachers are still totally unresonable. According to my students, they assign way too much homework, hand out referrals for no reason at all, and rarely smile.
Friends are still extremely important. Everyone tosses the names of friends around when we talk about relationships, trust, forgiveness, betrayal, feelings and love. That is where the rubber hits the road.
Sin is hard to identify. They are all little Pharisees who don’t worship idols, haven’t murdered anyone, haven’t stolen anything, and honor God’s Word in worship, Sunday School and youth group. It takes many weeks to reveal the selfishness, materialism, jealousy and hate in their hearts and minds. Pretty much just like adults.
Even though they are exposed to a lot of violence, corruption and sex in the news and video games, they cringe when I speak honestly about blood, crucifixion, war, sexual immorality, abortion, and other graphic Biblical topics. The looks on their faces was priceless last night when I talked about Moses tossing blood on the altar and on the people as a part of God’s covenant with them in the Old Testament.
At times their knowledge base is extensive. Other times it is limited. I have had to delicately explain “circumcision,” a “blunt,” “prostitution,” what contitutes “sex,” and what really happens when an abortion is performed. When I do, I always report to my parents the topics that came up. I’ll bet you don’t envy me.
This year’s group is unique in that they are all involved in worship and most are present for Sunday School and serve in youth ministry as well. For the first time this year, I told a family who wanted to send their kids to class that they were welcome to attend, but I wouldn’t confirm them. This family historically is way too busy to ever attend worship. I wasn’t very nice about it, though. I think I was having a bad day.
Imagine your grandfather teaching your confirmation class. Yep, that’s me, gray hair and all. It sure makes me feel younger though. That’s why I keep coming back for more.
Heard at confirmation class last night: “But Pastor, if I’m going to finish up my sermon reports this year, I’m going to have to go to church every week!” And yes, this comment was accompanied by a suitably horrified face, as if I had threatened to break their fingers.
Their comment wasn’t entirely correct. I pointed out that they needed ten more sermon reports, and that there were at least twenty-two more worship services between now and confirmation Sunday. For some reason, this did not provide them much comfort. They were still a bit disgusted.
The reason I require sermon reports is to stimulate worship attendance. I ask for twelve during the class which meets from September through April. For some reason, families had it in their head that their children could become confirmed members of the church without ever actually participating in the life of the congregation. This is actually the exact opposite of my goal: to equip them for a lifetime of involvement in the life of a congregation.
At the end of every sermon report, I leave a space for “What questions do you have about the sermon?” Ironically, the student who lamented going to church actually did a sermon report last week and wrote this question, “How can someone get closer to God and strengthen their faith?” Yes, I have an answer for them. It goes something like this: God gave you the gift of the church!
I wish I could connect some of these students and their families with those in our congregation who wish they could get to church. For any number of health and family reasons, they can’t be with us, and they would give anything to be able to come. They’d let someone break their fingers if they could come. Well, maybe. You know what I mean. What a contrast.
I’m not going to give up. I truly enjoy teaching this age group, we have a good time, and it keeps me young to hang out with the youth. The evil one keeps whispering, “Why bother?” But I hold on to the hope that maybe the brief time I have with them will be a seed that grows sometime in their life. They may not all get confirmed because some of them won’t actually do anything, but they will get the gospel each and every time I get to teach them. And that is powerful.
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!
We 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!
As 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.
That 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.
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.