Friday, January 5, 2007

My Confirmation

My confirmation, as I recall, had nothing to do with me confirming anything. I suppose I must have said vows, but I don’t recall exactly what they were. I don’t believe they had much meaning for me then, nor any now. To me, the confirmation process was a picture of the grace of God at work. It was an enacted parable in which I and all my 14-year old classmates were allowed to play a part.

The classes leading to confirmation were different from all other grade school classes. There were no grades, tests, compulsory memory work or homework. We sat and listened twice a week as our pastor explained the truths of the Bible from Luther’s Small Catechism.

In this class, we were never put on the spot. The pastor asked questions, but he only called on those who raised their hand. He assigned memory verses from the Bible and the catechism, but when it came time to recite he always asked for volunteers or we recited together as a class. His class was so different because he treated us with the same respect given to adults. But it went beyond that. His way of teaching was not some kind of method. He did not demand so little of us as a way to make us responsible for our own learning. He truly seemed to take no responsibility for us. He was not trying to convince us or indoctrinate us. There were never any lectures about “how important this was” or anything like that. He lectured, and we listened and learned (or not). It was no more complicated than that.

I loved my little catechism and my Bible. They represented something I knew to be important. They were ancient books, written by famous people, containing serious ideas. The books had no pictures. This alone put them in a way different category of textbook. In those day it was considered a desecration to write in books, and we didn’t, except to put little x’s (in pencil) by the assigned passages we were encouraged to memorize. We didn’t take notes as I recall. Taking notes was unnecessary, since there were no tests. And besides, little was spoken that was not already in print.

Examination Sunday in front of the entire church preceded confirmation. We sat in chairs facing the pastor on the altar, our backs to the congregation, as if it were a normal class, but with an audience. We knew in advance the questions we were going to be asked, but (as in class) no one was called on who had not first raised their hand. I’m not sure of the origin or purpose of examination Sunday in the Lutheran church. Perhaps at one time it was supposed to be a true exam, where we as students were to prove our mastery of the subject matter. But such (thankfully) was not the case for me or my classmates in the early 1960’s. Examination Sunday was a parable of the Gospel’s power to fulfill the Law. Under the pastor’s grace, there could be no failure of this exam. We were all going to pass, and so by grace we were saved any embarrassment. Confirmation was a gift, so no one could boast.

Thirty years later I would do battle with other pastors to try and save the confirmation grace parable for my own children. But I would fail. Tests and grading had invaded the instruction classes. Homework was common place. Papers had to be written. Church attendance was used as a measure of eligibility for confirmation. The secularization of confirmation classes made them indistinguishable from other kinds of classes. The Law had triumphed over the Gospel and the parable was no more.

The Sunday following my examination Sunday was Confirmation Sunday. As part of the ritual we were assigned a single Bible verse to say on the altar. As I recall, I was more nervous on confirmation Sunday than I was for the examination Sunday, simply because of this mandatory recitation. Although I was an above-average memorizer, I was always terribly anxious about reciting - fearing I would blank out and look stupid. My verse was 1 Timothy 6:12:

Fight the good fight of faith. Lay hold on eternal life,
whereunto thou art also called, and hath professed a good
profession before many witnesses.”

I don’t know how the pastor assigned the verses to us. It could have been random, but at the time I thought not. It was apparent he was giving short, easy verses to those who were known to have difficulty reciting. And the best students in the class normally got the long, difficult verses. Mine was somewhere in between, assigned for different reasons (or so I thought at the time.) I was convinced I got my verse because I had told people I wanted to become a Lutheran Day School teacher. Thus I had “professed a good profession before many witnesses.” I have never forgotten my memory verse, in spite of the fact that I misunderstood its meaning then and, for the most part, do not entirely understand its meaning now.

All these details, of course, muddle the main point of the confirmation parable. Through confirmation, I and all my pre-adolescent classmates were accepted into the congregation as an automatic rite of passage - based entirely on our age. From the slowest to the brightest, we all wore the white gown and the flower. There was no male or female, no Jew or Greek, no success or failure. We were accepted into the adult world of the church simply by the grace of being there.

I was never asked if I wanted to be confirmed. Such a question would have been inappropriate. This was not for me to decide. This was not about my wants or desires, my commitment, my faith, my mastery of anything. I could no more make a lifelong commitment to God than I could make a commitment to my future profession. I was, after all, just a 14 year old farm kid.

In my confirmation, I supposedly confirmed what took place at my infant baptism - speaking for myself now what was spoken for me then. But the reality is, I did not confirm anything. I was confirmed. Not by the command or the power of God, since God and Scripture know nothing of confirmation. I was confirmed by a congregation of people, according to the tradition of the church, accepted as an adult Christian and now allowed to sit at the Table with the big people. It was a simple rite of passage based on age and grace. In that light, excluding all other grand intentions others may ascribe, it was (for me) a great success.


Anonymous said...

That was beautifully said. I could see that as a piece at the end of the hour on NPR. :)

Bob said...

Terry--I certainly welcome the arrival of your insights in blogspace! You are one of the smartest people I know, one of the few people whom I realize are smarter than me. (There may be more than I realize.) I'll be reading your stuff.