Gretchen E. Ziegenhals: How should the church celebrate the passage into adulthood?

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A mother hosted a party for her son when he turned 18, inviting influential men in his life to help him learn what it means to be a good man -- and a good human. The church must also help young people understand their gifts, challenges and Christian identity.

On most of his birthdays, my son Ben invited a few friends to our house, watched a sci-fi movie and devoured my husband’s pizza.

But when he turned 18, we wanted to acknowledge that in the eyes of our legal system, he would be an adult. What kind of gathering would mark his entrance into this new but fraught time of growth, transformation and responsibility?

Several factors influenced our discernment.

First, I am a big believer in rituals, traditions and celebrations in the lives of children. When we mark an important event or accomplishment, whether it be the loss of a first tooth or the receipt of a college acceptance letter, we help the young make meaning out of their lives and understand their potential for doing God’s work in the world.

Coupled with our belief in rituals was our understanding that boys in particular need a positive tribe around them -- a rich network of uncles, coaches, teachers, pastors or other mentors.

In “The Wonder of Boys,” Michael Gurian notes that if boys don’t have a good tribe, they’ll find a bad one. We don’t take it lightly that both of our sons have been blessed by positive tribes, both locally and far away, though we rarely name it so intentionally. This birthday, we wanted an occasion to acknowledge openly that tribe for Ben.

I’d also been inspired by the work of Broadway UMC pastor Mike Mather, who speaks about the ways in which youth at his Indianapolis church are mentored. Rather than sustaining a traditional youth group, Mather’s youth minister organizes meals with groups of adults in the church and the community, in honor of one youth at a time. The adults go around the table and articulate what they see in the young person. The young person then says what she or he sees in herself or himself, and what she or he is willing to invest in. The adults all lay hands on the young person for a blessing.

As parents, we wondered, what we could offer our son to bless his passage into manhood and celebrate his Christian formation and identity?

We invited 10 men, ages 16 to 87, to be Ben’s guests for a dinner party that included plenty of barbecue-flavored Cheetos and beef jerky. These thoughtful men had influenced Ben’s concept of manhood, as well as his Christian identity: his father, grandfather and brother; youth pastors and youth group volunteers; his confirmation mentor; and old family friends and congregation members. They had a wide range of ideas about what it meant to be a good man -- and a good human.

As a Christian feminist and the former founder-director of a women’s studies program, I am acutely aware of the implications of a party celebrating manhood. But I am also the mother of two sons, who know a lot about what they shouldn’t do and be as white, middle-class, privileged men. So what exactly should they be? Whatever the checkered cultural history, my son was becoming a man, registered for the draft and able to vote.

So our party guests ate snacks, trooped outside to play croquet and then gathered around the table for dinner and birthday cake. We’d asked each guest to bring a birthday card with a few thoughts inside about what it meant, in his experience, to be a good man. They read those aloud.

The hours spent around the table were unique and memorable. The guests talked about how Ben might navigate the challenges of college; how he might define himself as a Christian; where the land mines for him might lie, given the ways in which they each knew him. The conversation included much laughter as well as serious talk.

Those gathered realized how few opportunities they had to talk about these subjects or to mentor a young man in such an intentional, open, sustained way, and as a group. It was another reminder that forming young people is one of the most important activities that the church, as well as families, should be engaged in.

While Christians don’t have the Jewish bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah ceremonies to mark the transitions of our young people, we do have other resources. Many Episcopal churches use the Celebration of Manhood and Womanhood Rite-13 ceremony with those turning 13. Some churches acknowledge that an 18-year-old is now a voting member of the congregation. Some celebrate high school graduations. The Congregation at Duke Chapel recently honored its high school seniors with a potluck for the youth and their families, followed by an informal service of blessing, story-telling, anointing and laying on of hands for each senior.

What other rituals could the church offer to celebrate the passage to young adulthood?

Theologian L. Gregory Jones speaks of the importance of what he calls “overinvesting in the young.” If we are to form Christian leaders, we need to overinvest in our young people, who need to be empowered for leadership, he says. We must speak to the young women and men around us, about their natural skills and gifts and about what they need to hold up as a guiding light as they make crucial, if early, decisions. We must call them up and call them out.

This birthday party was our way of acknowledging that we don’t want our sons to slouch their way into adulthood but rather to receive it with open eyes, hearts and minds, formed and humbled by mentors who can also hold them accountable.

“My prayer for you is that you will continue to grow into a man who loves other people, commits to helping those who are in need, and leads with compassion and integrity,” one guest wrote to Ben.

Others urged him to be civic-minded, to nurture the “often-underrated” skill of listening, and to be ready to forgive and be forgiven. Some shared verses from Scripture; some, truths inspired by Scripture.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

“You have heard it said a man must do it on his own, but I tell you the best men I know need community, and the help of others has helped me to be a better man.”

“In your career, be confident in yourself, but not cocky. Always keep your sense of curiosity and love for learning. And remember no one has life all figured out, and anyone who says they do is a fool.”

And finally, “Always have an adjustable crescent wrench, a Phillips head screwdriver, and a flat head screwdriver handy.”

Our son Luke turns 18 this month, and we have planned his party as well.

This time, in addition to local guests, his out-of-town uncles and cousins will offer letters of encouragement and challenge, sent in advance. Like the letters Duke ethicist Stanley Hauerwas wrote to his godson, these letters will surely continue to inspire virtue and develop character far into our young man’s future.