Inevitably, when I lead the discussion on sin with my confirmation students and I ask them to brainstorm a list of sins, the first sin they name is swearing/taking the Lord’s name in vain. I am not sure if it speaks to their general lack of personal experience as sinners in the world, the black and white nature of either swearing or not swearing, or the reality that teaching our kids not to swear is the last bastion of human decency that we hope to pass on to them (at least while they are still in middle school).Maybe it is my life experience, the many layers of grey that I have discovered in my own potential for sin, or my own potty mouth that makes me chuckle each time they put swearing at the top of their list.
After more discussion, and prompted by their knowledge of the Ten Commandments, we do get to the bigger sins – murder, lying, stealing, etc.The two hardest sins to get them to wrap their heads around are envy and honoring the Sabbath as holy. When I sat down this evening to read the story of the Ten Commandments with my son (and his Children’s Bible version of them), I asked him which were the hardest to follow. He sheepishly pointed to the ones that read “always listen to your mother and father; never make them unhappy” and “don’t be greedy for what other people have.”
Here is a paraphrase of the Ten Commandments as found in both the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy.
1. You shall worship God alone2. You shall not make any idols [images? of God
3. You shall not abuse the name of God
4. You shall keep the Sabbath holy
5. Honor your father and mother
6. You shall not murder
7. You shall not commit adultery
8. You shall not steal
9. You shall not lie
10. You shall not covet what your neighbor owns
In teaching the Ten Commandments to children, it is certainly helpful to start them off with the story of where they came from. You can talk to them about God meeting Moses on Mt. Sinai and teaching him the laws that the people were to follow. What could be better than the image of Moses carrying these two heavy stone tablets down to the people only to discover them breaking numbers 1 and possibly 2 already? Then he smashes them to pieces - how exciting!It is a bigger question to consider how we teach our children to actually follow the Ten Commandments. While there are a variety of Sunday school posters or charts that we might use, in reality we teach our children to follow the Ten Commandments in pretty simple ways.
I teach my child not to steal by telling him that stealing is wrong and not stealing myself. I teach him not to covet his neighbor’s possessions through the painful conversations we wind up having at the end of a friend’s birthday party. I teach him to honor me and his father by honoring our own parents and by making sure there are consequences for disrespectful behavior. I teach him to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy by making sure that worshiping with our faith community trumps any other commitment in our lives.
The key here is to consider not just how we teach our children that murder and envy, lying and worshiping false Gods etc. are wrong… it is how we teach them that the Bible puts a list of these all together for us to obey as followers of this one God. Maybe a poster actually is the best way to do that.Carolyn Brown, on her blog Worshiping with Children, has a great exercise to do with children: helping them to write opposite commandments as a way to help them understand what the actual commandments are trying to teach.
When a student starts Confirmation class, the key is not to make sure that they are not lying, stealing, coveting or worshiping idols – but to make sure that they know that the Bible teaches in very clear ways that these are not God’s intentions for us.
One of the things they learn in Confirmation class is that, no matter how careful they are to not swear or to take the Lord’s name in vain, as human beings they are inevitably going to be lying, stealing, coveting, idol-worshipers.So here are some of the fascinating discussions we can have in Confirmation class when students show up already knowing the Ten Commandments and their background:
First, we can look at them more holistically. We can break them down into two groups, 1-4 and 5-10: sins against God and sins against one another. We can talk about which is worse. Which do we need more forgiveness for and whose forgiveness do we need to ask for?Second, we can move from that conversation to an introduction of the Shema from the book of Deuteronomy – “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is your God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” How do we show our love for God - is it by worshiping God, or by turning away from other false Gods? What are the false gods we encounter in our world today? How does honoring the Sabbath show our love for God? Is Sabbath more than just a day off, but a way to set aside time in our busy lives to honor God alone?
Third, we can move from this great commandment of Deuteronomy to talk about how Jesus spoke of the law. We can talk about how there are hundreds of laws in the Old Testament that go beyond these ten, and that Jesus tried to help people understand their meaning. While some Christians might be apt to say that Jesus liberated us from the law, the Gospels make it clear that he came to help us truly live out the intention of the law. We can talk about how modern Jews still follow many or all of the laws of the Hebrew scripture and why we as Christians do not. We can talk about how Jesus summarized the meaning of the commandments – to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul AND to love your neighbor as yourself.Finally, we can have a great conversation about how we all fall short of obeying the Ten Commandments. Even though they seem to be straightforward and simple laws, there are many ways that we fail to follow them, ways that we misinterpret them, and even ways that we justify disobeying them.
The slippery nature of sin and our struggle to follow these laws is made clear when these fresh-faced 8th graders who are so quick to tell me that swearing is a sin turn into high school students whose conversations and language can at times make my toes curl.Our discussion of sin and the Ten Commandments is the perfect example of what Confirmation is and is not. It is not a year to learn it all, to master the Christian life, or even to become the perfect Christian. It IS a focused year that attempts to equip a young person to take on the very difficult and confusing journey of following Christ, a journey that will inevitably be full of mistakes, wrong turns and repentance.