Three years ago we began this Coming of Age service as a way of celebrating this passage that our young people make from childhood toward adulthood. In past times and places there were distinct ways of marking this passage through public ritual. A young person knew that they had crossed into a new stage of life because their community, their elders, their family, their people, told them so. Traditional cultures around the world had different ways of doing this, but the thing that just about all of them have in common – and maybe all of them, I don’t know – is that they had a way, some established practice, that allowed the young person to leave behind childhood and enter the adult world, affirmed and celebrated.
Our culture has developed an intermediary stage between childhood and adulthood in adolescence – an in between period when one is no longer a child but not yet a young adult. The lines are kind of fuzzy as to when adolescence begins and when it ends. It might begin at age 11,12,13,14, and might end somewhere around the end of the teenage years or early 20’s. It does seem to be its own unique part of life for us. Physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual development happens during this time that makes it special and serves to span the gap between childhood and adulthood.
Our purpose in this Coming of Age service is to celebrate our young people as they enter this in between period –as they set out on the journey of adolescence. When a group of them gets around the age of 12, we have this public ritual to let them know clearly that they are leaving childhood behind. They are growing, they are taking on more responsibility, they are discovering their God-given gifts, they are on their way to becoming young women and young men. So we as a community acknowledge this with them, and bless them for the journey ahead, and invite them to begin using these gifts all the more in our church life.
So Matthew, Caroline, Vincent, and Ben, this is what we’re celebrating today. We’re here to let you know that you are entering this new stage of life, and, as your church family, we want to give you all of our blessings as you leave childhood and enter adolescence.
One of the first things that we did together when we met two weeks ago was that you chose a story from the Bible that you wanted to have as the focus for this service. A character from scripture to have as a companion today and a way of connecting your story with the story of God’s people in the Bible. And we looked at a couple different stories and the one that you chose was this one of Jacob in Genesis 28 when has this strange dream about this ladder or this stairway that goes between the earth and heaven and when God tells him that God will always be with him throughout his life.
One of the main characters of this story, besides Jacob and God, is this ladder, stairway, bridge, ramp thing that shows up in Jacob’s dream. It’s hard to replicate what he might have seen, but we’ve got this cloth on the floor here going up our puny little stairs on the platform, and a few more stairs in the back to at least give a sense of what that might have been. And this is a dream he’s having, so we’ll also have to use our imaginations a bit with this. But I want you to keep this stairway in mind as we look through this story because it does something very important for Jacob that is similar to what this next stage of life is going to be for you.
One of the first things we might notice about this story is that it is a story about leaving home. Jacob has lived with his mother Rebecca and father Isaac and his older twin Esau his whole life, and this is the first occasion when he is setting out on his own, and his plan is to go up to Haran with his uncle Laban and find a suitable wife for himself. So Jacob is getting a little ahead of us since I’m not aware any of you are planning on leaving home or finding a spouse anytime in the next few years. But people who study and write about these stages of life, talk about how in adolescence we are already beginning the process of leaving home. Even though you still have a number of years living with your parents, you’re already starting to peak out the front door and see what else is going on in the world. It isn’t a physical leaving home yet, but there’s something within you taking place where your world is opening up much wider than just your home, just your family, just the familiar and comfortable world that you have known your whole life.
You’re starting that process of moving out into the world, and this is a good thing. You’re welcoming in relationships and experiences that you have apart from parents and home. And there’s this sense of boundless potential that you might sense, wide open possibility, and that gives all of us who know you great joy when we think about what might be ahead of you.
So we meet up with Jacob when he is leaving home. And he’s in this in between place. Not home anymore, and not yet at his destination. Maybe for you this is kind of like not being in childhood anymore, but not yet quite in adulthood. You’re officially in between. And in this in between land, Jacob comes to a certain place, and it’s getting dark, so he stops traveling for the day, looks around for a good rock to use as a pillow, and camps out for the night.
This is a camping story. Maybe we learn some things when we camp that we can’t learn when we’re safe inside our house with our comfy mattress and pillow. Jacob is on a solo camping trip, but he soon finds out he is not alone.
It must have been a pretty cozy rock, because the next thing we know, Jacob is asleep and he’s having a dream. And this dream becomes a key experience for him.
Abbie and I have been going through the Harry Potter series by listening to the book on CD – which, by the way, is an entertaining experience in itself. The reader is quite a storyteller and has an amazing array of different voices that he gives for the different characters. Our trips to Kansas are good opportunities to listen to these since we’ve got a solid 14-15 hours one way of travel time. And since we didn’t start listening until the whole series was already written, and since we only go out to Kansas together once, or maybe twice a year, it is taking us a while to get through it. But this last trip, over New Years, we listened to the fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix, and a big part of that book is that Harry keeps having this recurring dream at night about this mysterious corridor and room where he is looking for something. I’m not going to do a spoiler here, but the concern of Harry’s mentors and the headmaster of his school, Dumbledore, is that the Dark Lord Voldemort might be influencing Harry through these dreams, getting into his mind when his guard is down, and so Harry is supposed to be doing some training to learn how to keep his guard up while he is sleeping.
Well, in the Bible, it’s God who gets into people’s minds when they are sleeping. It’s in people’s dreams, when their guard is down, that God shows up and has a chance to direct them down a path that they might otherwise not go. Jacob is one of the early dreamers in the Bible, but then his son Joseph turns out to be quite a dreamer, and interpreter of dreams. Daniel has dreams about God and also interprets the dreams of the king of Babylon. And so many of the Hebrew prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, have dreams, or visions, dreams during the day, where God gives them a picture or words to speak to their people. And then in the New Testament there’s Joseph the Dreamer part II with this guy who gets a series of dreams telling him what to do about this situation with this woman he’s supposed to be marrying who is already pregnant and whose baby King Herod wants dead because this Jesus child will be a king. Throughout the Bible dreams are an important way that God speaks to people.
And so instead of getting training in learning how to keep your guard up during dreams, your mentors and teachers and parents and pastor are going to be encouraging you to let your guard down, to let these mysterious messengers of God speak to you. Be a dreamer. Listen for God dreaming through you. These hopes that you have for life. These things that you sense deep within you about what is wrong with the world, or what is wonderful about the world, places where you see beauty and joy and love, these pictures that you have in your mind about these things, this is part of the way that God speaks to you. Maybe through dreams at night, but certainly through dreams when you’re awake. Martin Luther King Jr. said “I have a dream,” and we know that you also will have a dream that is given to you by God. Listen for God dreaming through you.
Jacob is in this vulnerable position not at home anymore and not at his destination yet, in this in between land, camping out by himself, and he drifts off to sleep. And when he dreams, he sees this stairway connecting earth and heaven. The point of this stairway, it turns out, isn’t so Jacob can walk up it and take a peek around the heavens and see what things are like, which might have been nice. But the point is for Jacob to see that these two worlds that we can so often separate in our minds, the world of people and places and things, and the world of the heavens, the spiritual world of God, are connected. This stairway has messengers going up and down, so Jacob sees that the lines of communication are wide open here. Even though he’s camping on his own in the middle of nowhere, God is with him.
This stairway is a symbol of that connection. It fills in the gap. Like in your house where the stairway helps you get up and down between the different floors, so you’re not stuck on one or the other. You can be in the whole house.
One of the people who has done a lot of thinking and writing about the relationship between human development, different stages of life, and faith development is a professor by the name of James Fowler. And he says that one of the things that begins to happen for you about now is the process of synthesis – of drawing together different parts, different thoughts, different experiences and perspectives. Parts that may not feel all that related right now, but parts that you will begin asking how they might hold together. How does this and this fit together? How can this and this both be true? A big part of this has to do with personal identity. We have this new consciousness in our early teen years where we start asking who we are. And we start paying more attention to who others say we are. So you have these experiences at home, growing up, with your family – parents, maybe grandparents, cousins, siblings, other relatives. And you have these experiences at church where we talk about God and we talk about Jesus and other people from the Bible. And you have these experiences at school with teachers and friends, and learning about all these wonderful things like science, and history, and math, and literature, (I’m sure you always feel that these are all wonderful things when you have homework every night). But you have all these parts, all these different yous – and you start to wonder, well…which me am I? Am I who my parents say I am? Who my friends say I am? Who the people I don’t get along with very well say I am? Who church says I am? Who’s right?
A big part of your life for the next number of years will be working on how all these parts fit together.
Jacob’s stairway is a message that there is a connection. All these parts that feel separate and disjointed and almost like different worlds, do fit together. And, most importantly, God is in each one of those places. It’s like different rooms and levels all inside the same house, and you’re free to move around and explore.
God shows up alongside Jacob and tells Jacob that no matter where he goes, God will be with him. And God gives him a blessing. Tells Jacob that he will be blessed, and that others will be blessed through him. And that’s exactly what Jacob needs to know for this journey. He doesn’t know how things are going to turn out, but he goes with a blessing. And even though he’s in this in between place, God is with him, and all of these different parts somehow will fit together some day.
And when Jacob wakes up, he says, “Sure the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.” This place is like the house of God.
And so to remember his experience there at that place he takes this rock that he had been using for a pillow, and he sets it us as a pillar so he can remember the place. This is a multi-purpose rock. He wants to have some kind of physical reminder of what happened here and how special this place was. He’s already been told that God is going to be with him everywhere he goes, which means that the whole earth is really God’s house, but he goes ahead and names this place God’s house, Bethel, because of his experience there. And he sets up that pillar.
And the next part of our service will be giving you a physical reminder of this day, something that you can look back on and remember what this Coming of Age experience means for you. We have these books that you’ve helped design yourselves and they have some unique things about you that you’ve written in them. And another part that we hope you come back to often are these different blessings that your church family has written for you. Just like God sent Jacob with a blessing, we want to give you our blessing and maybe even some advice or some thoughts about the journey ahead of you. So first, we’re going to sing this song called Guide My Feet, appropriate song, and then we’ll present you with these books.