Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Teaching Religion is Like Teaching Grammar


May 5 is Confirmation Sunday. Today we were working out the last details of the liturgy for worship and what will be on the screens in the sanctuary (pictures and names of the youth as each is confirmed). Thirteen 8th graders have made their way through hours of class and offered service in the name of Christ. They have heard lessons about the Bible and the story of salvation through Christ. They have considered theological concepts and learned about United Methodist heritage. They have spent time with their mentors and have had the opportunity to ask leaders in the church and the clergy questions. One of the confirmation mentors who attended every class with his mentee has been telling people how much he’s learned. He told members of the administrative board, “Everyone should take Confirmation.”

On Sunday each youth will profess his or her faith publicly. The class will affirm the vows made for them at their baptisms and become members of the church.

This week I am remembering my years of teaching English grammar to high school sophomores. It is an abstract, difficult subject. After years of lesson plans and hundreds of students, I concluded that, ultimately, a person either gets the structure we impose on our language or she doesn’t. It was a joy when a student would come to understand the components of sentence structure and know how to employ them. Sadly, grammar continued to be a mystery for most.

I have great sympathy for those who were lost for good reason. The rules for English grammar come from Latin grammar. We sticklers for proper grammar take those rules and impose them on English. The problem is that unlike Latin, English is a living, dynamic language. It is changing and adapting to culture and context all the time. Imposing rules from a dead language knocks the life out of the living one and leaves us with stacks of diagramed sentences piled up like crushed cars in a scrap yard. What good are they?

I suspect that in many ways we do the same as we teach “the faith”. We offer the doctrines and traditions, theological suppositions and biblical interpretations. Our hope is that through all of the structure, created by human beings, that we will be able to see God, to define God, to perceive the presence of God. But God is living, dynamic, moving in this world. No lesson, rule, or list of beliefs will capture the grand mystery of the Creator of All Things.

Some of our 8th graders, preparing to profess their faith, “get it”. They can see beyond the cumbersome structure of religion to the mystery of faith in the Living Christ. Others have the lessons behind them and the mysterious, gracious presence of God that moves in their lives waiting to be revealed.

I never gave up teaching grammar. I trusted that for many, with experience and continued education, it would make sense. I trust the same for our confirmands. And I hope for something more. While the religious structure they have learned will help them in making choices, my hope and prayer is that God’s Spirit may grab hold of their hearts and their lives, leading them to be followers, not of rules, not of a religion, but of the living God.
Caring for one's neighbor diagrammed. A life of faith and grammar meet!

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