Some years ago, I was one of the lay council members who led a small town congregation during the interim between pastors. One responsibility, a pleasant experience as it turned out, was conducting a Confirmation class for our lone pre-confirmand, a boy whose primary interest in life was soccer, not religion.
Dan (all names are changed) was in many ways a typical mid-teen, extrovert, perhaps a bit more self-confident than most, as he was clearly our local High School’s best hope for a soccer championship in three more years. He had an understandable reluctance to volunteer opinions and information to me or verbalize his thoughts and questions. After all, our faith was obviously important to his parents and presumably to me and I was pretty much a stranger. So opening up had no obvious up side and plenty of possibilities for trouble.
This was Dan’s second year of Confirmation class, and his relationship with our former paster, Tim, was good, but slightly perfunctory. Pastor Tim had taken him through the Bible stories, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Dan seems to have treated this as a required subject necessary to pass in order to qualify for the soccer team. He knew the material and could answer the questions. That was pretty much it.
The second half of Confirmation is where we try to connect the dots between what we say we believe and what difference it makes. I didn’t have an ongoing familiarity with Dan, so I gave some thought to what resources were available. For one thing, he seems to have been mildly curious as to why I, a lay person with a whole other life, should care about my faith. I knew that wouldn’t last very long – young men are fully aware that adults do all sorts of strange things for unfathomable reasons, and don’t look very far for motives and explanations.
My best resources were his mother, Elena and his father, Bill. Both wanted him to finish and be confirmed in the church. It was important to both, and Dan knew it. His older brother, now a Sacramento firefighter, had been confirmed a few years back, and Dan clearly saw Kevin as a powerful role model. I decided to leverage this, and asked Bill and Elena to attend each week’s class “until Dan gets used to me”. They agreed that one or both would be there – not a real chore because someone had to drive him to and from the church and it gave them something to do until we were done. That was probably the best move I made all year.
There was a Confirmation text book Tim recommended I use, but, frankly, it was pretty twinkie. The topics and structure were useful, but the text was dumbed down to the point of vacuity. I couldn’t bring myself to use it directly, especially as Dan was pretty bright, though most unscholarly, and if I’d been assigned it at his age, I would probably have concluded the class was a waste of time. Why do we do this to our kids?
Anyway, I went with my old standby. At the first meeting, I told Elena and Dan that our study this year would explore one question, “OK, I’m a Christian. What difference does that make?” That he should read the text book, a chapter at a time, and bring me one question that occurs to him, and we would start off with that question. And bring a Bible every week, because we’d be referring to it often.
I also said his question didn’t have to relate to the text, if something else he wanted to know seemed more important. As long as it had to do with his faith or what we believed, any question was fine with me. In effect, Dan was in charge of the syllabus and his parents and I were his information resources. I did point out that we might not be able to answer the question with a clean answer – some questions are like that. I told them that one of the important reasons I was a Lutheran Christian is that Luther emphasized that if we didn’t know something, we should leave it a mystery. If God thought it was critical to our faith, he’d have told us.
It turned out that Elena and Bill were absolutely essential to the success of our class. We talked about why they were Christians. I offered my own basic commitment – Out of the whole Bible, if only the rescue of the Israelites from Egypt and the Crucifixion were true, the rest of Christianity made sense. I find it impossible to look at the sweep of history and not conclude that those incidents were too improbable to be fabrications. The effects on all humankind have been too great to be the result of some mythic invention. If we believe Jesus was real, and was raised from the dead, we are a part of “Holy History” whether we will or not, and the question becomes “What do we do about it?” Elena’s reasons were less cerebral. She had never had serious doubts, being a Christian “just seemed right”.
Bill and Elena also talked about why they were Lutherans. Bill was raised in the Roman Catholic church, Elena in a Lutheran family. As is typically the case in my experience, the one who was more firmly grounded chose the denomination. This was made inevitable by Bill’s priest’s insistence on Elena’s “conversion”. Since her parents were stanch members of our congregation and Bill’s were in another part of California, that was that. Fortunately for the family, our Lutheran worship was very similar to Bill’s pre-Vatican sensibilities, so as many former Roman Catholics do, he thought of us as “Catholic lite”. Whoever linked our worship practices with our core beliefs has the right of it.
In the fullness of time we talked about all kinds of things. Bill was a volunteer firefighter. We spent one evening exploring why he took this risk, and what it means in terms of “loving your neighbor as yourself”. Elena talked about work with the Food Bank, and we took advantage of an ill-timed “away game” to substitute a shift at the Food Bank for a class Dan couldn’t make. He did well, and the staff seemed to love him.
Dan’s faith instruction still took a back seat to soccer. Three or four months into this, however, Dan converted a blocked kick into a broken arm, and our class time became more predictable. By this time we were using the Bible to ground most of our discussions and Bill and Elena were both present more often than not. Having topics to discuss which didn’t have “right” answers and where Dan’s thoughts were as valuable as anyone else’s opened him up considerably.
Bill and I talked about Kevin and the way he made his Dad’s volunteer service into his profession. I offered my service as a peace officer and as a soldier as a more ambiguous example of serving others. We talked about what made sense to Dan about our faith and what he couldn’t understand. Then we all volunteered our thoughts, if not always our answers, to whatever questions he had this week.
We all agreed that some things about the world didn’t make sense and the answers we found in the Bible didn’t always cover the whole question. That’s fine with me – someday we’ll grow into the answer as we gain wisdom, or, at fifth and last, we’ll be able to ask God directly. Some kids need to think they have all the answers. For Dan, knowing the next steps to take to find out the answers seemed to be enough for now.
In retrospect, I think the opportunity we gave Dan to engage in really serious, really safe, conversation with his parents was the most valuable thing to come out of the year. How many teens get this chance? Not very many, I suspect. How many parents would like for their children to open up, but don’t know how to make it happen? Probably a lot more than find a way to make it happen.
Finally, our Class of One finished, and, come September, Dan was confirmed in front of the confirmation, stuffed with cake, congratulated by everyone and took his place in the congregation as an “official adult”. His grandparents, Bill and Elena, and I were very proud. Kevin made a rare visit.
I met my own Confirmation pastor many years later. He didn’t remember me, as I was in a huge Baby Boomer class and we moved away soon after. When I told him how much his teaching meant to me, he remarked wryly, “Many pastors count their time to retirement by how many Confirmation classes they have yet to teach.” Confirmation teaching is a difficult, unsung job, but I can think of few things more satisfying than to have a part in shaping a young Christian’s soul.