Two pastors were commiserating with each other about how hard it was to keep rabbits out of their gardens. A third pastor walked up, heard the complaining, and proclaimed that he’d found a secret solution for that. “When they show up in the springtime, I sit on my back porch, confirm them, name them, list them as official members of my church… and they never show up again.”  

“Confirmation” is an educational requirement for those who want to become official members of a United Methodist church.  Several other types of churches also require confirmation, such as Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Orthodox, Reformed, and United Church of Christ.  (Confirmation is generally not practiced in Baptist, Pentecostal, Mennonite, Quaker, and non-denominational churches.)   

I came across a photo the other day of my own confirmation class, back when I was in the 7th and 8th grades.  We met once a week after school, listened to lectures, wrote answers in a workbook, and memorized a bunch of stuff.  They called  it “catechism” back then rather than confirmation.  There were about 20 kids in the class, and there were a million other things we’d rather be doing those afternoons. It is traditional that the pastor be the one to teach the class.

So, when I became a pastor myself, I determined to make confirmation more interesting.  Based on the singular criterion of being interesting, I reached my peak of my confirmation career with the group I taught ten years ago, on the day Daniel Wright set fire to my study.  The kids loved it. Best. Class. Ever.

I have an oil lamp, made by June Keener-Wink, that burns with a dancing flame.  The confirmation kids would gather in my study and sit around on the floor. I’d turn off the overhead lights and ignite the lamp. The dancing flame was mesmerizing and had the odd effect on the kids of both awakening and calming them.  

One day I was late getting to class and Daniel decided he would get the fire dancing while they waited.  He rolled up some tissue paper for a torch, lit it with a match, and gently touched it to the wick of the lamp.  But the tissue paper burned faster than Daniel had calculated, and he tossed it onto the carpet before it scorched his fingers.  As the paper burned higher, he looked around for something to smother it and could only find more tissue paper… which made the fire worse.  

Daniel’s dad got there before me.  By the time I arrived, the flame on the carpet had been extinguished, but not the flame in dad’s eyes.  Within minutes Daniel had been excommunicated, docked $1000 from future allowances, and grounded for five years.  Due to a mix of plea bargaining, early parole, and a decision on my part to move my desk over the bald spot (rather than replace the carpeting), Daniel was spared execution and able to resume a normal life soon afterward.  To this day he and I maintain an active friendship.  

But other than letting the kids set the church on fire or hypnotizing them with a dancing flame, what else did I learn in all those years of teaching confirmation classes?  

I learned the importance of curiosity.  If I could evoke their curiosity and get them to ask questions, it was likely that a good time would be had by all… and they might even learn a thing or two. It was that discovery that got me structuring my lessons around questions they asked.  From the very first day of class, they are invited to write out questions for me to answer.  (They quickly learn that the alternative is for me to interrogate them.)  

They can ask me any question they want.  But at least half of their questions must be about the Bible, the church, or religion.  Just working with the questions they come up with sets me up to cover almost all the topics required by the “official curriculum.” The dialogues we have over their first questions inevitably lead to more questions. 

For each religious question they ask, they are allowed to ask a question on any other topic they chose. Middle school kids like to ask about what kind of love life I had when I was their age. They also ask psychological questions about odd behaviors they observe in others. I also get questions about death and whether I went to school before math was invented.

I have now met for two weeks with my latest confirmation class, eight middle school kids at Geneseo Grace.  I haven’t brought my lamp to class yet, as I need to check first on the fire provisions in the church’s insurance policy.  But they have started asking me questions.  

Some of their questions I can handle just fine.  They want to know what they’re going to look like in heaven, why we talk about John Wesley so much, what the very first church used to do, why different denominations believe different things, and what eventually happened to the apostle Peter.  

Don’t be surprised if they all seem to know the names of the girlfriends I had in the seventh grade, whether I have a dog, and how long I’ve been a pastor.  Expect them to be a little more loving and thoughtful about people they think are weird; we’ve been talking about that.

But there are some questions they’ve asked purely to test me, to see if I actually know anything about the real world.  These questions include “How many bones are in a baby's body?” “How many breeds of cat are there?”  “Graph Y = 7 x + 3.”  “Who are the Seattle Supersonics?”  “Why do people get wrinkly?” and “Where does a ballet dancer get power from before they turn?”  

Lord have mercy.  But also… for these particular kids, and the precious memories I have of all my past confirmation classes… Thanks be to God!