To Set the Heart. . . But Not in Concrete
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
Jewish young people take classes to prepare for their bar or bat mitzvah, when they read a portion of Torah before the congregation and take their place in their faith and heritage.
Native American youth undergo a wilderness vision quest to mark the passage between childhood and adulthood, sometimes even receiving a new name growing out of that experience.
Young children in Islamic families are taught the prayers recited five times a day; when they grow into adolescence, this practice becomes mandatory to mark their full membership into the community.
Christians have confirmation, also marked by a period of focused study and learning experiences designed to help youth consider the promises made for them at baptism, and to take responsibility for their continued growth in faith and membership in the community. That word “confirmation” can be translated “to set one’s heart,” to clarify and affirm for themselves a path chosen for them by their parents or others when they were baptized. Though today we mark a particular moment in the confirmation process, let no one assume this is the Grand Finale for these young people’s journey. If anything, it’s a beginning, and I hope — and believe — they have been given the tools and support to keep exploring, asking questions, challenging tradition, and doing so within an accepting, loving faith community.
Every one of these young people are from homes of active Central members. Many were baptized here as infants. They’ve worshiped and attended church school and youth group; they’ve served with the church in soup kitchens and homeless shelters. They are great students, play volleyball and baseball and soccer and hockey, and had opportunities to travel a lot. They’re fun and funny and thoughtful and irreverent; they surprised me with insights and impulses to do the right thing often. But I’m struck by the hard realities they’ve also experienced: the death of a mother, the death of a classmate, a parent’s job loss, a sibling’s serious illness, relationship issues, being cut from the team and more. Some mentioned that being Christian is kind of weird when many of their peers describe themselves as “atheist,” and to some extent each has wrestled with the intersection of faith with science. One confirmand put it this way: Right now I am trying to remain strong and kind, even in middle school, which isn’t the easiest thing to do when you are twelve.
Well, no. And truth be told, it doesn’t get any easier. You remember the warning: Don’t let stress kill you. . . let the church help! So how does confirmation help?
I think it’s one and the same: the church helps us set our hearts. . . but not in concrete.
Faith is a not something you own or reject. It’s a process, an adventure, a kind of trust walk, a cooperative enterprise that you simply can’t do alone. Whether or not you join the church (some of you are and some aren’t; just like church: some of us are members, and some of us aren’t), you’re part of it. Whether or not you believe in God, we believe in God; and we believe in you. So don’t make yourselves scarce around here. My favorite faith symbol is the Communion chalice, a sign of God’s love poured out upon everyone. But one of my favorite people in the world says his favorite faith symbol is the coffee mug, a sign of God’s people, welcoming, sharing and accepting one another without judgment. You want people like Jack Westfall in your lives. Trust me.
Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church. You heard the account accompanied by wild music, compliments of Wil Smith. The context of our origin story is not an awe-inspiring nature vista, with heavenly choirs accompanied by harps and organ. No it’s smack-dab in the heart of the city, amid chaos: rushing wind, flames of fire, ecstatic speech. There are some things you just can’t plan, and surely one of those is the wild and wonderful movement of the Holy Spirit. The gospel writer once marveled: you can feel the wind and you can see evidence of it blowing, but you can’t produce it; you don’t know where it’s been or where it’s going. . .
…sort of like confirmation. Parents encouraged their children to participate, and faithfully brought them to worship and the classes. Mentors walked alongside the youth, getting acquainted, talking together, sharing learning experiences. Prayer partners prayed for each young person. Dedicated teachers planned classes about faith essentials. But when all is said and done, it is the living, lively Spirit of God that kindles faith in any of us. You can see evidence of that here today, in the faces and faith statements of all eight young people. But here’s the thing: there’s no time line for the Spirit’s work. At Central we don’t evaluate success by how many young people decide to become confirmed and join the church. We celebrate those decisions, but never imagine for a second that the Spirit is not equally at work in the lives of the ones who choose not to do so. Yes, each of these young people — and each of us — has “set our hearts” on something –values, beliefs, a worldview — but I pray God that we never set them in concrete: hard and unyielding, immovable and resistant to change. I was at a Bible study recently in which one woman marveled at how much she still had to learn. She’s 92. You want people like Sue Wilcox in your life. Trust me.
One Sunday morning several weeks ago I locked myself out of my condo when retrieving the newspaper. It was 5:30, and there is no one in my building I know well enough to bang on their door at that hour. My spare house keys are at Jack and Audrey’s, but they were out of town. I also have a car key in my office desk, but it would be hours before the church was opened. I was stymied. But then I remembered one place I knew would be open. In pajamas and sock feet, I made my way down 17th Avenue to . . . New Genesis, where the men were just getting up. They were pretty surprised and yes, I took a lot of good natured kidding. But one guy brought over some slippers and said I could wear them so my feet wouldn’t get cold. Another gentleman brought over a cup of coffee, which tasted like heaven at that moment. When my calls from a borrowed cell phone didn’t yield any results, one of the team leaders offered to give me a ride to Jack and Audrey’s to get the keys and then back to my condo. I arrived at church, on time and showered, thanks to those men whom we often regard as the needy ones.
Dear confirmands, dear friends, we’re all needy. We all feel locked out sometimes. Life sometimes throws us a curveball we don’t know how to hit. So set your heart — not in concrete — but in the company of God’s people, where you’re sure to find a cup of coffee and the love that will see you through. Amen.