Monday, January 15, 2007

Preparing for baptism

Last night, JC and I had an interesting conversation about one of the things that we're trying to do with our Sunday school kids, which is to prepare them to become adult members of our Christian community. In our church, we practice adult baptism, but that "adult" is pretty liberally interpretted. I've seen children as young as six get baptized; the normal age is between twelve and fifteen. I was eighteen, but wasn't raised in the church, so no one thought anything of that. A friend who was raised in the church, but who chose to wait until she was eighteen or nineteen caught a lot of flack from other members of the congregation. JC was twelve, the early end of normal.

We were talking about how, in the next Sunday school class up from ours, Ms. Cathy begins talking really intensely with the kids (5th and 6th graders) about baptism. I think that's great, but I also think that it's not enough to explain the necessity of baptism to them. They also need to have some internal understanding of the nature of sin.

In my teen girl class, even, I'm not sure there's much understanding of sin, as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. The girls all seem to think that they're good people, so why should they be concerned about sin? They definitely are good people, as are the younger children we teach, and most of the people at our church. There's a lot of sweetness and kindness in the air. Still, sin is about being human. Sin is about the dark, awful questions in the recesses of one's own mind. Surely everyone has those. Surely, I'm not the only sinner in my church. And if I am, what am I doing shaping young minds?

A few years ago, I attended a youth rally at our church. We had guests from elsewhere, and the guest preacher, Michael, was amazing. On the last day, he gave a long talk about sin that ended with, "Anyone here who's sinned in the past week, stand up!" So I did. So did about six other people. This was in a room full of seventy teenagers. Then Michael asked each of the people who stood to confess the sin that they were thinking about, before the group. This was not at all what I had expected. I honestly believed that everyone would stand, because all have sinned. Right?

The next day at church, several of our elders and deacons approached me, saying that they had heard that I had "come forward" at the youth rally, and offering their prayers. I thanked them, of course, but I was also a bit embarrassed. I explained the context of the situation to Mike, one of our elders. "Yes," he smiled, "We have the cleanest bunch of teenagers on God's green earth. Uhm. I would ask you to sit with us, but we can't have any sinners in our row." Since he had a sense of humor about it, I was able to as well, but I still was bothered.

JC told me that when he experienced serious sin for the first time--in thought, not word or deed--he felt that he was broken. He was baptized a Christian. He shouldn't feel these things, not ever. Right? Someone had failed to explain to him that Christians sin all the time, it's just that our repentance and Christ's sacrifice mean that we don't die with those sins on our heads. It shook his world up, to realize the kind of sin he--and every other person ever--was capable of. I had a similar experience, though it was before I was baptized. I was blessed in that I really knew what my baptism was giving me, because I also knew the sins I was capable of.

I want to give that understanding to the kids in our class. I want them to comprehend that, just because you've never killed anyone, that doesn't mean you're not a sinner. This isn't a punative impulse in me. It's a desire for them to go to their baptisms with a real understanding of what it means that "Jesus died for my sins"--a phrase all of them can rattle off, but none of them understand at all. Baptism is a gift, and without understanding, it's an empty one, or one with an unpleasant awakening lurking at the other end of it.

JC feels that people don't confront that kind of awareness of what sin is, exactly, until their late teens, at the earliest. I think he's probably right, but just as most experts agree that it's never too early to start talking with your kids about sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, it's probably also never too early to start preparing them for the fact that they will, one day, discover that they are as sinful as anyone else. Maybe if they're prepared, it won't leave them gasping and helpless, as it did to me, and to my husband.

I don't even know what to say to prepare them.

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