• I went to see my dad today, and was pleased to see him sitting up.  He can feed himself four of five spoonfuls of food at a meal, walk with assistance, watch the Cubs on TV, and carry on a conversation is the sentences are brief and direct.  My mom bought an Alan Jackson CD so he could sing along on some old hymns, which he can...and enjoys very much.  He will be released from the hospital this week to a rehab center to continue his therapy.
  • This week is Holy Week, when we get to experience the powerful story of the passion and resurrection of Jesus, more relevant than the news we see on TV or the internet.  There's something true in the old story that bears repeating, over and over. 

April  14, 2018
The Titanic and This Year's Confirmation Class
We are now finished with this year's last  confirmation  class, as of 5 p.m. CDT this past Wednesday.  
A brief primer on the custom of confirmation and its terms: 

Confirmation also  known as  catechism  in some churches, is a set of lessons for older children  or young teens designed to acquaint them with the basic teachings of Christianity ...Christianity 101 you might call it. 

After completing the classes, the young folks are invited to formally "join" the church by uttering the prescribed vows for membership.  A pastor, or bishop, is said to  confirm  the new members by blessing them and certifying that they have completed the course and made the appropriate vows. 
The idea of confirmation may be noble, but hardly anyone who has been through it   can think of anything good to say about its long-term effects.  Nevertheless, our dinosaur mentality continues to demand that pastors and young people slosh their way through the annual rite, despite the fact that most careful observers deem the quaint process off-putting, baffling, or nonsensical... with evidence to back up their observations:  most youth abandon the institutional church shortly after they get "confirmed."
There is the joke about two preachers talking one summer day over their backyard fence.  The first was complaining about how the rabbits kept ruining his garden.  The second preacher testified that he  never  had a problem with rabbits in the garden.  The first asked how that could be.  The second said, "Every spring, when the rabbits are all young, I go out in the yard and  confirm  them, and I never see a single one of them ever again.  
Since I am nevertheless expected to teach a confirmation class in the church, I have tried to redeem the process by looking into the history of the word "confirmation," which comes from the Latin and means "to fortify, make strong."  And so I ask myself:  make these young folks strong for what?  So they can run the church someday?  So they can be resourceful enough to face the inevitable hardships of life? So they can fight  against  injustices in the world?
And how should we make them strong?  By telling them great stories?  By introducing them to living traditions that can generate insight and creativity? By connecting them with ready-made networks in the church? By introducing them to Jesus of Nazareth? 
Ridiculous as the track record is for confirmation classes may be, I take my pastoral responsibilities for the rite quite seriously...in the sense that I believe a pastor should spend more time with young people in order to assist them in becoming powerful.
We're fond of saying that "young people are the church of the future."  And we plan to hand the "ship" of the church over to them:  the "ship" that has been in  our  care now for many decades.  
But I've been worrying about what kind of "ship" we are bequeathing to the next generation. While I was teaching this year's confirmation class, three things were happening.  First, in our local congregation, a number of adults were arguing over whether to continue experiments (that were bringing in new people)...or discontine those experiments because some of the old-timers were unhappy with the changes and the unfamiliar ways it made "their" church feel.  There's a chance that without some experiments bringing in new people, this particular "ship" may be pretty well sunk long before this year's confirmation class is legally old enough to serve on the board of trustees.  
Second, the bishop and superintendents and other conference officials notified Jie that they have decided to defund and eliminate all conference efforts to support ministry with the Chinese: even though Champaign County has the highest concentration of Chinese anywhere in the United States, other than along the west coast.  No more open doors, open minds, or open hearts if you are Chinese and live in Illinois.
And third, it was also during this year's confirmation class that our denomination held a General Conference in St. Louis to formally determine that the United Methodist Church may or may NOT let you serve or be served by the full range of the church's ministries.  It will all  depend on how liberated you are from society's gender expectations...and on whether you are willing to interpret several Bible verses out of context...and in the most inhumane way possible.  
If confirmation is a matter of equipping young people to take over the ship someday, it has become increasingly clear to me that the ship we are handing over to them is the Titanic.  It will be very difficult for the next generation to fight evil and injustice out there, in the world God so loves ...if they are trying to captain the Titanic.  
It is an appropriate weekend to think about the Titanic:  an ocean liner that hit an iceberg on this day (April 14) 107 years ago.  And then it sank.  Nothing personal:  the ship just wasn't equipped for the real world, a world consisting of icebergs and deep oceans.  

Like the Titanic, today's institutional church is simply not designed to survive in a world consisting of greed, lust, gluttony, and violence...all jacked up exponentially by our advances in information technology.  Just look at the modern institutional church:  it is not surviving.  People are abandoning it for good reason: hindered as it is by its privileged clergy class, inhumane rules, stifling local traditions, wasteful denominational hierarchies, and encumbering buildings.  Our young people are not being unfaithful when they escape us and reject our offers to captain the Titanics we offer them.  They are just being smart.
But we shouldn't let them get away without telling them about the Carpathia.  The Carpathia was a ship built in 1902, primarily to bring Hungarian immigrants to the U.S.  This was back in the day when immigrants were greeted with the Statue of Liberty rather than ICE and a wall.  The Carpathia was not designed to be a consumer showboat, but rather an unglamorous, functional transport.  
As the Titanic was sinking in the early morning hours of April 15, its SOS signals were picked up by the Carpathia, the closest ship to them in the Atlantic, four hours away. Without any hesitation, the captain of the Carpathia rushed into the iceberg infested waters...and managed to save the lives of over 700 Titanic survivors floating in the deadly ocean waters. 
That ship was named after the Carpathia Mountains, a European range that took its name from the Greek word, "carpos," which means "wrist."  The mountain range has a bend to it, just like a wrist can bend.  

The wrist is the most flexible joint in the whole human body. The Carpathia, because it showed  flexibility,  was able to save many souls.  Okay...I know that's a stretch of coincidences ...Carpathia...wrist...flexibility...but I'm going with it anyhow.  
How to confirm...strengthen...and teach power to those who would be  the church  in today's world?  Perhaps confirmation should be about imagining what it means to be the  Carpathia  in today's world ...rather than trying to foist the Titanic upon our kids.  

There is power in flexibility...new forms of being the church that we haven't even yet begun to imagine.  FLEXIBLE POWER to this year's confirmation class!  I look forward to seeing how the next generation builds a better ship for the work of God's love and justice in the real world.  


 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS


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