Monday, October 26, 2009

Walk Softly But Carry A Big Stick

Teddy Roosevelt said something like this (at least I think he is the author). It had to do with diplomacy and military might -- the combination of the two. When I was installed as Pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church, Cairo, New York, on St. Bartholomew's Day, August 24, 1980, I got a big stick. The Bishop, the Rev. Ronald F. Fink, went out into the woods of the church property and got a big stick. It was rough and rustic -- stripped of the bark but nothing more than a big stick. In the installation he gave me this big stick as he said to me "Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, not for dishonest gain, but willingly..." (1 Peter 5:2).

For nearly 30 years I have kept this five foot tall big stick and have resisted every impulse to sand down its rough edges and finish it. I have carried it in procession many, many times (especially on Good Shepherd Sunday). It used to tickle the fancy of some of the folks in New York and I would get all sorts of comments, like "What good is a big stick unless you are prepared to use it..." I suppose Teddy got the same. I would often joke about being the Bishop of Cairo and pull out my staff to prove the point.

This past Sunday when we celebrated Reformation Day and confirmed eight youth, I carried this big stick in procession. Just before the service I realized that two folks from my NY congregation were here visiting in Tennessee and were surprised but gratified to see the old stick still in use.

When the time came for the Rite of Confirmation, each youth came forward and knelt before me. I had the big stick in my left hand and my right hand on each of their heads as I said the words now so familiar to me "n_____, God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, give you His Holy Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and knowledge, of grace and prayer, of power and strength, of sanctification and the fear of God." Then I anointed them with oil saying "God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has given you the new birth of water and of the Spirit, and has forgiven you all your sins, strengthen you with His grace to life everlasting. I anoint you with the salutary oil of eternal life in our Lord Jesus Christ." And then read the confirmation verse I chose for each youth.

I first saw the staff and confirmation in the Episcopal Church where the Bishop confirms. Intrigued by the image of the confirmand kneeling, the Bishop seated on his episcopal throne, and the staff standing as both symbol of the flock and the Shepherd, I contrasted that with the visual image of my own confirmation rite -- one that seemed to communicate graduation more than incorporation. So I have used that staff to add to the visual image of what is happening in the Rite of Confirmation.

Lutherans do not believe that Confirmation adds anything to Baptism nor do we accept the idea that Confirmation is essential in order for those baptized as an infant to give their own voice to the promises once made for them. What we do believe about this Rite (one that Luther had a great deal of problems with), is that it represents another stage in the life long journey of faith, begun in baptism and recognized at different points for the learning that has accompanied this journey and for the responsibilities accepted at each stage. That is why the staff seems to visually portray what is happening in Confirmation.

Those confirmed are already part of the flock by baptism and now we hear their public confession in order to affirm with them these baptismal gifts and the faith which the Holy Spirit has brought forth in them. We affirm who they are -- not so much as individual Christians but as the flock of God. It is a communal rite in which the congregation affirms them and they affirm their place within the congregation. We have given them a hymnal at the end of this catechetical process and described to them the significance of this book and their voices joined with the voices of the many who sing and speak together its words as the flock of God gathered at the call of the Good Shepherd, to receive His gifts.

It is a churchly rite and a churchly moment. So I pulled out the big stick because it too is a churchly symbol -- not only of my role as undershepherd of flock the Lord has given into my care but of our place as the sheep in the Good Shepherd's flock. Sheep are mentioned 247 times in Scripture. In many and various ways God uses this imagery. Here, with the confirmand kneeling before the assembled congregation, and me seated with one hand on the staff and the other on his/her head, I think of one particular passage: Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. (Psalm 100:1-3).

Once those words were very familiar to us in the words of the Venite in old Matins (TLH). And that is what was happening in that Rite of Confirmation. We were affirming that we are His people and the sheep of His pasture -- not because of anything we do but because of the Good Shepherd who has sought out His lost to bring them home, has placed Himself between His sheep and their enemies, has suffered even death to protect them from what would steal them from His grasp, and has restored them white as snow.

There in that moment of Confirmation, it all came together for me. Psalm 100 has brought its promise home to Lilly, Lainy, Allison, Andrew, Maranda, Briton, Devyn, and Tristan. Standing before the altar in the white albs that remind us of His righteousness they wear by baptism, kneeling before the staff, I saw this confirmation rite through the lens of Psalm 100. That is what was happening -- the affirmation that that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture -- something neither they nor we would know unless the Good Shepherd came to accomplish it and reveal it to us by faith.

1 comment:

Past Elder said...

I was confirmed pre-conciliar RC, so that rite was quite close to what you saw in the EC. And of course you know it is seen as connected to Baptism, even moreso in the East where it is administered at the same time.

But you're quite right, whether the service resembles a graduation or not, so often functionally it is just that -- you graduate and leave.

I think the use of the pastoral symbol is entirely appropriate. Rather than hassle over who has it right about Confirmation, the RCC or the EO, and what should we do, I think it better to understand it as the Messianic bar mitzvah, where one upon education and training and examination becomes an adult member of the community -- one begins something rather than ends something.