We called it confirmation class when I was young, and under the methods of the previous generation, I learned sternly. All was conducted with a solemn lawfulness, for these matters were grave, consisting of life and death. I memorized Martin Luther's explanation of the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed, the Commandments, the Sacraments, and the Christian Table of Duties. There was little joy in the exercise; there was, rather, great anxiety to get it right.
PASTOR: "The Fifth Commandment."
WALLY: "Thou shalt not kill."
PASTOR: "What does this mean?"
WALLY (standing erect, his thumbs upon his pant seams): "We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need."
We memorized biblical proof passages to support these meanings. I know these things by heart even today. Indeed, there was value in the severity of my training. But a faith without joy is a faith that knows about the Savior, but never yet has met him or felt his steadfast gaze upon its face.
During the years of my ministry, on the other hand, new methods of education have risen up to ease us all, training which depends on the youth's own willingness to come and learn: this generation must not feel burdened. Therefore, the blither spirits and contentments of youth have shaped the atmosphere of their religious schoolrooms.
I have watched with some dismay how this tendency to goodwill has replaced the genuine gravity of these matters (which do train the student in the difference between life and death). No longer need they memorize great portions of Holy Scripture, that the words may be handy in circumstances yet to come; no longer need they give a good verbal account for the basic, most important tenets of their faith and salvation.
Instead, each student writes a statement of faith. And these statements are offered to the congregation as proofs of—of what, really? Not of the youths' advancement beyond themselves and their own callow experience; proofs, rather, of juvenile sincerity as evidenced by a 13-year-old's concept of the Deity.
The School of Experience
My own first year as pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, during which I undertook the confirmation class, was a dismal experience. This was a small congregation in the inner city, and though adults had strong hearts for the faith, their children were altogether undisciplined in religious ritual. I could count on no one's regular attendance. Homework simply did not occur. I could make friends with the kids—and did. But I could not of my own authority persuade them that the topic I taught mattered more than basketball or (in those days) Run-D.M.C. or Nintendo.
By the end of the teaching year, I took the hard line, seeking to establish with everyone how seriously we must take this learning, and no one was confirmed. I invited them all back for a second year.
During that year, two events happened to shape my confirmation classes ever thereafter.
The first was formed of my pastoral desperation. I decided to teach each student at home, under the required attentions of the adult who was raising that child. I would go to them. And I would make the parent/grandparent/older sibling as much my student as the kid, establishing relationships with both and expecting the older to oversee the younger's personal homework.
But in order to set up that labor-intensive program, I first went to each home seeking promises. I wanted a contract in hand by which to encourage (or enforce) the commitment when kids or parents lagged in interest or energy.
So I sat with the whole family. According to my plan, we all spoke of our individual readiness to embark on confirmation classes. The atmosphere was completely democratic: if any one of the three of us (child, pastor, guardian) felt unready or unable—or if a parent truly thought the child unready—that single veto moved the question of confirmation on to the next year. But if we all said yes—why, I had both the promise and individual goodwill to go on.
I continued seeking and saving this three-way covenant ever thereafter.
The second event happened Easter Sunday morning that year. I'd come to the church in the wee, dark hours of the morning in order to pace up and down the central aisle, learning my sermon by heart. This was my Sunday habit: preparation for preaching was as much emotional and spiritual as it was intellectual.
After the sun had arisen, about an hour and a half before worship was to begin, children started to arrive—without their parents. And since our building had only two large rooms (the fellowship hall below and the sanctuary above), the kids chased through them both, heedless. I couldn't think. The sermon was dying inside me. I was veering toward panic and schemes of bloody assaults. Where were the teachers? Why were these kids here now?
I did not know that the children were not here for Sunday school at all. I did not know that the teachers were not here because there was no Sunday school planned. I did not know that the refrigerator downstairs was full with cartons of colored eggs. Of course the kids were antsy: they were looking for a good time and gifts.
All shot out of patience for the want of a sermon, I shouted to the children, "Sit down!"
They froze mid-run and looked at me. Sit? Why?
"Sit down," I said, and the next thing popped unbidden out of my mouth: "And I'll tell you a story!"
I'll tell you a story. It was the most natural thing for me to say. And it had its natural effect: the kids sat. All ages sat down in the pews, facing me, filled with anticipation, ready for a story. And because no other story was so immediately to hand than this one, I began by saying, "Jesus was eating supper with his disciples, and he was soooo sad."
The littlest faces fell straightway into lines of deep sorrow. They knew sadness, and with my next words, they felt sadness: "Because one of his disciples, one of his friends, was going to go out and rat on him."
For the next 40 minutes I told them the story of Jesus' suffering. I watched them closely. I said the hero was going to die. They did not believe me! Heroes never die! And they were identifying tightly with this hero. They liked Jesus.
When, therefore, I described in detail his arms and hands being nailed to a cross-piece of wood; described in detail how they lifted the cross-piece and Jesus' body up to a stout pole and dropped the whole onto a peg there; when I raised my arms to show the great weight that pulled on them, closing Jesus' chest, causing his own body to suffocate his lungs—why, those children's arms were unconsciously up in the air, same as mine. And faces filled with an unspeakable sorrow. Because I said, "He died. He died. Jesus really did die."
A marvelous thing was occurring in that little sanctuary: By story, 25 children had been transported straight back to Jerusalem and Golgotha.
And then the adults started arriving at church, chirping welcomes back and forth, bringing with them a daffodil morning, and smiting the eyes with their bright Easter finery. The adults entered the sanctuary—and found their children all gloomy in the pews. Well, he died! No, there was no joy in the hearts of the children at that moment.
I was very clear about my sermon now. There was no choice. How could I not, for my children's peace of mind, finish the story?
"But that's not all," I said directly to the children. And then I said, "Mary Magdalene was crying."
I spoke of the early Easter events through Mary's eyes. But when that moment comes when Jesus addresses her by name, I looked straight at Larry Thomas and I said, "Jesus said, 'Larry!' And Jesus said, 'Dee Dee,' 'Charlotte,' 'David.'"
And I saw then, and I testify now to, their genuine wonder and transfiguration. Those who had truly experienced the death of their hero now truly rejoiced in his resurrection. It was no self-manufactured emotion; it was the genuine thing! And it was not in response to the holiday, no; it was in response to the living Lord Jesus Christ.
Storytelling conveys the realities and the relationships of our faith better than almost any other form of communication we have, for in story the child does more than think and analyze and solve and remember; the child actually experiences God through Jesus and through Jesus' ministry. The whole of the child is involved in the faith.
Out of these insights has emerged a two-year training program, which I believe can be used in liturgical and non-liturgical settings, that speaks to the whole child.
First year: Meet God
And this is how I spent that first year: by telling the stories. By weaving them together, week after week, and thereby telling the whole story of faith after all. Listen: religions do exist without doctrines and theologies; but no religion has ever existed without a story at its core, not as an illustration of some doctrine, but rather as the very truth, the evidence and the testimony of God's action for the sake of the believers.
But a story that goes untold lacks life. It becomes a puzzle to be solved by intellectual analysis alone. And a religion whose story is untold, likewise, lacks life.
For if we never have, by means of the sacred story (the gospel), experienced the presence, love, activity of our Christ, then we will fall back upon lesser experience; we will fulfill our natural need of religious experience with mere sentimentalities and silly diminishments of God. And so our religion, too, will be diminished.
On the other hand, if all we have of God is our own religion's doctrines, well, then we will begin to worship the most subtle idol of all: our own words about Jesus, as if they were the Christ, the Word of God. Such a blindness will never recognize that it is blind.
When I was a child, we went each Saturday to the ymca, where for a dime we watched two films. One was a full-length feature (Ma and Pa Kettle; Abbot and Costello), and the other, often a cowboy movie, was a cliffhanger. We had to come back the next week to see how the Lone Ranger got out of his desperate fix.
When I taught confirmation's first year, I did essentially the same thing, with essentially the same results.
From September to mid-December, while the students sat before me in the pews of the sanctuary, I told key stories of the Old Testament. Each new week I quizzed them on the events of last week's story—both as a test and as the summary that would carry us into this week's episode. I promise you: it is astonishing how much of what is experienced is retained, as opposed to what must be seized and held by intellect alone.
When I speak of this program to other pastors and teachers, they often object: "But we can't tell stories. There's a special skill to telling stories."
I reply that they are right: there is a special skill to the craft. But it is both learnable and findable by nearly everyone who can speak in front of children and teach them.
In this case, method follows motive. How you tell stories will depend upon why you tell stories, and if your personal reasons are right, you will surely tell stories effectively.
There are two rules:
(1) If the story that you are telling is of profound importance to you—if the tale communicates that without which you could not live, that which seizes your whole heart and mind—then you will find the method and manner by which you personally communicate most important things.
If it is of the Lord God that you are speaking, and if you love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength, and with all your mind, well, your delivery will have authority and power, though your method be different than everyone else's method.
(2) And the second rule is like unto the first. If you do truly love your neighbor; if you love the children unto whom you speak; if you love them particularly, by name, then you will speak to them. You will look them in their eyes. You will shape the story to include them, sometimes using their names. But you won't do these things because this is how stories are told, as if you were practicing a craft. You will do these things spontaneously, not even thinking of them, because you have the hearts of these children upon your own pastoral heart.
Work with your strengths. Use music or drawings. But understand and honor the ancient oral tradition, since this has ever been the primary means by which one generation prepared the next to bear the mantle unto the third.
The second year: Know God
The second year was the year of hard work. But by this year we had established and nurtured a genuine partnership in the faith. So much of what it means to be human had already passed between us, so strong had our bonds become, and so common now was the base upon which our hard work would stand, that we were ready for the hard work.
During this year I expected and received serious study: they memorized the biblical words that last year had been biblical stories for them; so they were not memorizing in the dark, as it were, isolated portions of Scripture. They were memorizing things already beloved and familiar.
Each church tradition has its own particular theology to impart. I taught my students according to Luther's Small Catechism—just as I myself had been taught. But as we discussed a particular doctrine (say, the Commandments) I would ask them to tell me the Bible story that supported our lesson (say, the story of the golden calf as example of idolatry). Their participation delighted the both of us, and I could praise them. Joy did, you see, prevail in these classes, even when learning was most difficult.
Eventually came crunch time and the genuine rite of passage into spiritual adulthood: the moment of confirmation.
The nervous fear that preceded the public examination was good! It was necessary for the catechumen's sense of personal achievement. An initiation ritual is only as real as the task is real, as significant as the task is difficult.
If it's free—or else made easy for the poor child—that child remains even in her own estimation a child still, and dependent. Moreover, expressions of faith that require no labor will carry no weight. To love and to honor the Lord will seem a light thing indeed—and shields so lightly constructed can protect against no weighty enemy after all, nor sin, nor death, nor the Devil.
So I gave them a genuine question-and-answer exam, seeking the doctrines now in their own words, from their own mouths.
But by now they did not see me as the cruel taskmaster. I was their helper! I, together with their sponsors, worked and worked the material into their hearts by saying: "We won't let you fail in front of so many people. We are on your side. You will strike them with astonishment by your great learning!" I became the managing coach. Their chosen sponsors worked individually with each. We made confirmation day into something like the final game of a long season.
And when the confirmands had succeeded in their answers, when all teaching and all questioning were finally at an end, the adults who loved and honored the children burst into a jamboree of laughter and applause. Always! Every year they whistled and stomped, though in each new year the applause was completely spontaneous and offered to that year's group alone. (Only once in all the rest of my tenure at Grace, from 1974 to the late '80s, did a student not pass.)
On Pentecost Sunday itself, the final act of confirmation took place before the entire congregation.
"You are my child," the Lord had said, and made it true in the saying. Now that child, having come to understand the meaning of so celestial an adoption, declared before the witness of the whole church, but unto none but Jesus himself, "And you are my Lord!"
Walter Wangerin Jr. teaches English at Valparaiso University. This essay is adapted from his book This Earthly Pilgrimage (Zondervan, 2003) and reprinted with permission.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
This Earthly Pilgrimage is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Also posted today is an interview with Walter Wangerin.
Wangerin's articles for CT include:
Small Beneath the Firmament | For my father-in-law, his place in the order of Creation was no diminishment, but the beginning of wisdom. (March 2, 2001)
Maundy Thursday | Part one of "The Great Reversal," a CT Classic article (April 20, 2000)
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