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Rite of Passage
A Father's Blessing
By Jim McBride, Jim Vincent
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2011 Jim McBride
All rights reserved.
Rites and blessings
Many civilizations throughout history have celebrated rites of passage, signifying a coming-of-age milestone. There's something in our nature that makes us want to acknowledge a transition from childhood to adulthood. Typically those rites have included three elements: separation, transition, and subsequent incorporation.
In the separation phase, the young person is taken from his familiar environment to enter a different and sometimes difficult world. Separation can take many forms: a distant journey, a trial in the wilderness, or just a time away from parents.
During the transition phase, the initiate must undergo some sort of change, whether it be a trial of arms, a survival challenge, or increasing responsibility. The transition phase is the time where the participant learns the appropriate behavior for the new stage he is entering. Whatever the transition event is, the person is different when he emerges from what he was when he began.
Finally, during incorporation, the young man or woman is welcomed back into the larger society, hopefully as a transformed person with a new sense of purpose and mission. This last phase takes place when the young person is formally admitted into the new role, and it often features a ceremony of some sort.
Be a Marine!
In a way, my experience in Marine Corps boot camp was a rite of passage. During separation I left my family and everything I knew, and I journeyed to Parris Island, South Carolina, the Marine boot camp of legend. Upon getting off the bus to the shouts of Marine drill instructors, I was ushered through a door that read, "Through These Portals Pass Candidates for the World's Finest Fighting Force." I was truly separated, in a world where we recruits could never do anything fast enough or right enough. (I have to confess that early on I found myself asking, Mama, what have I done?!) Parris Island is not separated just in the sense that you are cut off from your past; it is literally separated from the US mainland, joined only by a single causeway, guarded by an armed sentry.
During transition, I was slowly molded into a US Marine. It was a long, arduous process, with a lot of long days involving hours in the field, in classrooms, and on the "grinder" (that's what Marines called the large parade deck where close-order drill takes place). But slowly, through the three phases of Marine Corps recruit training, I was changing from a civilian with civilian habits into a Marine with Marine habits.
Finally, months later, came the day for graduation, when I would be fully incorporated into the Marine Corps. On that day I was granted the title "US Marine" for the first time. (During boot camp, we were called only "recruit," "private," or words I can't repeat here, but never "Marine." That title had to be earned). On that day of incorporation I joined a fighting force with a rich, two-hundred-year tradition and the esprit de corps and camaraderie that comes with it. I was now a member of something much larger than myself, with an entire tradition of honor, courage, and commitment to uphold. Equally important to me was the moment when I was also reintroduced to the welcoming embrace of my family.
Becoming a Man in Sparta
Other cultures throughout the centuries have incorporated rites of passage that bring their young people—usually boys—into the wider world of that culture. In ancient warrior cultures such as Sparta, Greece, this rite was brutal, and sometimes the young man didn't survive. The separation phase began early, usually when the boy was only about seven. He was trained in the art of war and lived under severe, sparse conditions (hence our word spartan, meaning harsh, tough, devoid of luxury). During those years he learned discipline and physical and mental toughness.
Once he reached age eighteen, the young man was given only a knife and sent into the wilderness to survive by his strength and wits. Those who survived until age twenty were finally welcomed into the full ranks of the Spartan military, where they served until age thirty. The Spartan rite of passage prepared a young man for the thing most prized by the culture of Sparta: the warrior's life.
How Maasai Youth Become Men
Such rites of passage still continue today. They feature similar themes, but are more directly tied to contributing to the wider society. Jerry Moritz, a retired US Navy chaplain who spends many summers ministering to the Maasai tribe of Africa, relates their rite of passage. The Maasai are a seminomadic pastoral people whose territory covers southern Kenya and parts of Tanzania. Their entire culture centers on their cattle, their source of food and their measure of wealth. They surround their villages with high barriers of acacia bushes with inch-long thorns that no lion, leopard, hyena, or even elephant can breach. At night they drive their livestock into the compound to protect them from predators. But the cattle must have room to range, so during the day they are herded onto the African veldt. There their main enemy is the lion. For obvious reasons, then, the Maasai rite of passage revolves around a lion hunt.
When young Maasai boys reach the age of fourteen or fifteen, they are taken out into the bush by the morans—the warriors of a particular family group. The morans form a circle around a male lion, the young man is given a shield and a spear, and he is ushered into the circle with the lion. These initiations are very fluid and fast-moving. It's young boys against a wily predator that is stronger and faster than they. Moreover, the lion feels trapped by the circle of warriors and becomes even more dangerous. The boy must kill the lion before the lion kills him. If there is a group of boys undergoing the initiation, according to tradition, the first boy to throw his spear and wound the lion gets the credit for the kill. If the lion evades efforts and then attacks the boy, the warriors will come to his defense and kill the lion, but the boy has not passed the rite.
If a young man successfully kills the lion, he is considered successful in the rite of passage and becomes a moran. But he is not finished. He must separate himself from the larger group for a time. He lives out in the bush for six to eight years and lives off the land. Sometimes he will link up with other new morans who have successfully gone through the same rite. They are allowed to kill the occasional goat or a cow for food, even though it may belong to another Maasai group. During this time a new moran also looks for a wife. He may go into a Maasai compound, go to any of the huts, and thrust his spear into the ground inside the hut. The woman in the hut, according to tradition, then becomes his wife. Once the new moran has completed his time out in the bush, he returns to his village and is considered an elder among the Maasai. The Maasai rite of passage prepares the young man to receive all the skills and courage needed to become a protector of his people.
The Meaning of the Bar Mitzvah
Another rite of passage perhaps more familiar to readers is the Jewish bar mitzvah, which literally means "son of the commandment." The variant for girls is bat mitzvah, with bat meaning "daughter." Jewish tradition states that until the age for this rite, children are under their father's authority and not directly responsible to God for keeping His commandments. Upon becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, though, the child is responsible directly to God for keeping the law.
Technically, the term refers to the child who is coming of age—thirteen for boys, twelve for girls—not to the ceremony itself. However, you are just as likely to hear that someone is "having a bar mitzvah" or "invited to a bar mitzvah." No bar mitzvah ceremony is actually needed. A Jewish boy or girl automatically becomes a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah upon reaching the appropriate age. The bar or bat mitzvah ceremony is not mentioned in the Jewish Talmud and is a relatively modern innovation. The receptions or parties that are commonplace after the bar or bat mitzvah today were unheard of as recently as a century ago.
There is a special religious significance to being bar or bat mitzvah. Under Jewish law, children are not obligated to observe the commandments, although they are encouraged to do so as much as possible to learn the obligations they will have as adults. Once of age, though, children must observe the commandments. The bar mitzvah ceremony formally and publicly marks the assumption of that obligation, along with the corresponding right to take part in leading religious services, to count in a minyan (the minimum number of people needed to perform certain religious services), to form binding contracts, to testify before religious courts, and to marry.
In its earliest and most basic form, a bar mitzvah is the celebrant's first aliyah, i.e., reading from the Torah in Hebrew or reciting a blessing over the reading during services, which is considered an honor. Today, it is common practice for the bar mitzvah celebrant to do more than just say the blessing. It is most common for the celebrant to learn the entire haftarah portion (the reading of the prophets), including its traditional chant. In some congregations, the celebrant reads the entire weekly Torah portion, leads part of the service, or leads the congregation in certain important prayers. The celebrant is also generally required to make a speech, which begins with the phrase, "Today, I am a man." The father traditionally recites a blessing. In modern times, the religious service is followed by a celebration that is often as elaborate as a wedding reception.
For the bat mitzvah, in some Jewish practices the girls perform essentially the same ceremony as the boys. In more conservative wings of Judaism, though, women are not permitted to participate in religious services in these ways, so a bat mitzvah, if celebrated at all, is usually little more than a party. The bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah prepares the young man or woman to be a full member of a Jewish family and congregation, accountable to both his family and to God.
Granting the Blessing
The Blessing in the Old Testament
From Judaism we also get the idea of sending our young people into the world with a blessing from God, a priest, a patriarch, or one's father. The biblical blessing takes many forms, but a key idea in blessing is to set aside someone or something for a special, holy purpose. It can also mean to praise or glorify as well as to keep and protect.
An early blessing is found in Genesis 14:18–19 (NIV), where Melchizedek blesses Abram (soon to become Abraham): "Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, 'Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.'" It was a way of calling down God's favor on Abram and acknowledging God's provision in the past (victory in battle) and in the future (God's covenant with Abraham).
Another blessing is found in Genesis 48, as Jacob lies dying. His entire family is reunited, and he knows his long-lost son, Joseph, has had God's special calling upon him. And because of the promise God had made to Jacob through his grandfather and father, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob is determined to pass this blessing not just to his own sons, but to Joseph's sons born when he was in Egypt: Ephraim and Manasseh.
[Jacob] blessed Joseph and said, "The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the angel who has delivered me from all evil, bless the lads; and may my name live on in them, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and may they grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth." (Genesis 48:15–16)
Not only does the mention of Abraham and Isaac connect Jacob's faith in God to his immediate forefathers, but it also helps tie together the faith of the earliest patriarchs in Genesis—those who were said to have walked with God—with that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It harkens back to past blessings and becomes a continuation of those blessings to future generations. It is a confirmation and promise of God's faithfulness.
Another blessing for future generations can be found in the so-called blessing of Moses, found in Deuteronomy 33:1–29. Here the patriarch pronounces blessings on the tribes of Israel, reminding them that it was God's provision and love that has blessed them.
The Blessing of Jesus
Perhaps the most important blessing in the Bible is found in the accounts of Jesus' baptism in the first three Gospels (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–22). John the Baptist had been preparing the way for the Messiah, baptizing people with water, but he promised that another, greater than he, would soon come. One day Jesus Himself came to John and said it was proper for Him to be baptized, "to fulfill all righteousness." Upon coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven opened and the spirit of God, in the form of a dove descending upon Him. And God's voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:15, 17 NIV).
This statement directly from God was His blessing on His Son, the promised Messiah. It marked the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, with God clearly communicating to His Son that He was sent forth with His Father's praise and with His blessing.
Interestingly, Jesus' first recorded experience after being sent on His mission with His Father's blessing was His temptation in the wilderness of the desert. That wilderness was associated not only with demonic activity, but it also was the place where Israel faced her greatest testing.
The Benefits of Blessing Your Child
The blessing that concludes a rite of passage gives security and comfort to your children as they get ready for adulthood. You are their advocate. They have your support and all that goes with it. A lot of men lack confidence because they never had the support of their fathers. There's something special about the public acknowledgment of the father for the son.
A blessing on a daughter is equally important. Many girls get off track in life because their relationship with their father was disconnected. And seeing a father as a man leading a life of integrity sets up a daughter to do the same. The father sets an example in her mind of what it means to be a man ... and hopefully a godly man. It makes a father want to be a lot more guarded in living a life with Christ.
By giving this blessing to his son and daughter, the father sets up the son and daughter for a head start in life, avoiding mistakes that many young adults make. In contrast, a child's maturity often is stunted by the broken relationship with the father.
Giving your children a formal blessing is similar to Israel's blessing on his sons, calling out each child and giving a specific blessing that acknowledges each child's adulthood and conveys your support. There will be other opportunities to express your love, but this day presents a special opportunity to affirm your children. (For specifics on the prayer of blessing, see the end of chapter 2.)
What to Include in Your Child's Rite of Passage
From Jesus' desert experience we can learn some important things to include, literally or figuratively, in the rites we use for our children. In Jesus' case, His desert sojourn was a literal separation from civilization. The Judean wilderness is a barren land. It is not a sandy desert like you might see in the movies; rather, it is a wasteland of rocks and boulders, steep drop-offs, and yawning caverns: no water, no plant life—nothing. But Jesus was not totally alone. He had fellowship with his Father and the Spirit, and He had the Word of God in His heart.
So here's lesson one: The separation phase must include some spiritual aspect. The separation does not have to be a literal wilderness—any sense of being taken out of the normal day-to-day world should suffice. The key is that the separation focuses on your child's spiritual being. It cannot be wilderness adventure solely for the sake of wilderness adventure.
Here's lesson two: Any rite of passage must be grounded in God's Word, and there should be ample use of it throughout. Jesus would be repeatedly tempted; each time, He referred to God's Word in response.
Jesus' time in the wilderness was a time of transition. He was moving from His life as a young Jewish carpenter toward the ministry His Father had prepared for Him. Jesus knew what His ultimate mission was: to suffer and die for our sins. Being fully God yet fully human, He was able to be tempted, which is what Satan had prepared for Him.
The Devil offered Jesus three temptations to turn away from the Cross. There are various interpretations as to why Satan tested Jesus with these three particular things—turning stones into bread, being saved three particular things—turning stones into bread, being saved from certain death from a high fall, and being given all the kingdoms of the world. In some ways these temptations experienced by Christ are similar to those mentioned in 1 John 2:16 (the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life). John Wesley defines them in his commentary:
The desire of the flesh—the pleasure of the outward senses, whether of the taste, smell, or touch. The desire of the eye—the pleasures of imagination, to which the eye chiefly is subservient; of that internal sense whereby we relish whatever is grand, new, or beautiful. The pride of life—all that pomp in clothes, houses, furniture, equipage, manner of living, which generally procure honor from the bulk of mankind, and so gratify pride and vanity. It therefore directly includes the desire of praise, and, remotely, covetousness. All these desires are not from God, but from the prince of this world.
Excerpted from Rite of Passage by Jim McBride, Jim Vincent. Copyright © 2011 Jim McBride. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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