Rites of passage provide a path of honour and blessing for young people
by Ben Volman
Gordon Dalbey was 20, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, when a Nigerian colleague explained the male tribal rites of passage. Every year, village men gathered the boys near adolescence, around age 11. They surrounded the mother’s hut to “call out” the son who is inside. The mother opens the door reluctantly, but the call gets louder and more vigorous until she steps aside. Even then, the boy must make the decision to come. Initiates leave the village for a time of physical and spiritual training. On their return, each receives a new hut with tools and land from their father to live independently.
When he was 20, Dalbey scoffed at the native custom. In later years he felt humbled. By contrast, he saw the shallow proofs of manhood that were supposed to validate his own generation: getting a driver’s license at 16, buying cigarettes, getting drunk and going to pornographic movies. “We are lost males,” he writes in Healing the Masculine Soul, “cut off from our masculine heritage— abandoned to machines, organizations, fantasies, drugs.”
Isn’t the church supposed to fill that void? Traditional congregations have a strong heritage of preparing youth toward first communion and confirmation. But most evangelical churches have no structured programs for adolescent life passages. Young people are encouraged to take a step of faith in Jesus, but that doesn’t fulfill their need for parental and community affirmation.
Doug Koop grew up in Africa, the son of missionary parents and raised his own family in Winnipeg. His church traditions lacked a formal rite of passage for young men. But when his eldest son, Nathan, reached 13, Koop knew he had to mark this coming of age. So friends, family, neighbours and the church community gathered to affirm Nathan and acknowledge the role they had all played in his development. As editor of Canada’s national ChristianWeek newspaper, Koop reflected further in an editorial.
“Why are rites of passage important? What deeper impulse prompts the human
longing for social acknowledgement of life’s transitions?” he asked. “Part of the explanation relates to the enduring need for civility and community, and the fundamental desire to know why we are on this earth.”
And then it got personal. “My son, Nathan, turned 13 this summer. While he isn’t yet a man, he’s not the child he was just a year ago either. His life is at a turning point. We marked the turning point with a celebration…, a symbolic and ceremonial attempt to articulate his moral and spiritual heritage.” He recalls how one of the participants most impressed by the ceremony was a non-Christian neighbour. “He won’t fully appreciate what he was given this evening until he is much older,” she said.
Indeed, Nathan hasn’t forgotten. “It means more to me now looking back,” he wrote back to an e-mail inquiry. “I also reflect on what trajectory my life has taken in the 13 years following that party. The faces I remember being there are people of strong faith, and perhaps that has formed my own faith.
Christian author and teacher Craig Hill stresses the importance of blessing children at significant points in their life cycle. In his book, The Ancient Paths, he says this is vital to instill an inward awareness of their identity as God’s creation with a meaningful destiny.
“When blessing does take place at those crucial times, it releases an extraordinary inner security and confidence,” Hill writes. He uses the Jewish model of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah (“bar” is son, “bat” is daughter; mitzvah refers to the commandments in the Torah given by God to Israel, thus “Son or Daughter of the Commandments”). Hill’s alternative ceremony for Christian young people is called Bar Baraka (“Son of the Blessing”).
Val Dodd, senior pastor of Burloak Christian Fellowship in Oakville, Ontario, strongly promotes Hill’s approach. Dodd’s passion on this topic was birthed 20 years ago when he and his wife were called to ministry in his native Ireland. That sense of call came with an unusual pre-condition: he knew that he must ask for his father’s blessing. Dodd’s father, a traditional Catholic, had initially been hostile to his son’s faith although, by then, they had reconciled.
Dodd vividly remembers arriving at his father’s door to ask for a blessing and the words he received: “Jesus, I bless my son and Brenda, my daughter in law, to go preach the Gospel,” his father said. “I believe that was the day I became a man in my spirit
and life,” says Dodd. “It changed me inside.” Later, he was attending one of Hill’s Family Life Seminars when he heard Hill explain the significance of a father’s blessing.
“Then a light went on and I wanted to see that happen in other lives as well.”
A consistent emphasis in all the material around adolescent rites of passage is the critical importance of the father. Based on his extensive experience as a Christian spiritual counselor, Dalbey stresses the need for young people, especially young men, to have their father actively present in their lives as they reach puberty. In the child’s early years there is a primary dependency on the mother. But the father’s role increases as the young person expands their vision beyond the home. The young person sees the father as a mentor preparing them to have functional lives out in the world.
Dodd regrets that Christians have lost a common source of blessing which is celebrated each week in the traditional Jewish household; the Sabbath blessing from the father to his family. “The Jewish people have something we don’t have, a sense of impartation of family blessing from the father,” he says. “We have tried to replicate the Bar Mitzvah through church confirmation, but that event has no impartation of blessing from the parents to the children, particularly the father’s blessing.”
As senior pastors, Dodd and his wife Brenda began to teach their congregation about family blessing and were astounded by the profound response from their people. Men in particular began traveling back to their fathers for blessing, even over long distances. One of his members, John, seized on the concept so strongly that he traveled back to receive the blessing of his father-in- law in South Africa. Dodd says, “They all felt as honored and blessed as I did. It’s never too late. I was 40 when I received the blessing.”
After teaching these principles to their church, the first Burloak event to honour their young people was held in 2000 and proved very rewarding. Since then, they have developed and refined the format of the ceremony. About 80-90 young people have gone through the program which is based on the blessing of Isaiah 43:1:
But now, this is what the Lord says—
He who created you, O Jacob, He who
formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name;
You are mine.
The five components of the ceremonial blessing include: a confirmation of gender identity as the young person goes from the mother to the father across a stage; release into manhood or womanhood; calling forth the young person’s positive character qualities; a recital of prophetic words reminiscent of Paul’s words to Timothy (2 Tim. 1: 5,6) and a pronouncement of specific blessings as the parents lay hands on their child and anoint them. Members of the congregation then gather round to bless the young people. The church also affirms single parents, for example, having Godly men stand with the single mothers.
The Dodds were surprised to learn how many Christians hesitate to bless their children from feelings of inadequacy, and this has led to an emphasis on supporting family life. “We’re developing a culture of honor and blessing in the family and the church,” says Val Dodd.
In addition to Craig Hill’s books and Family Life Seminar, including his book on Bar Baraka, Val Dodd recommends Gary Smalley and John Trent, The Blessing; Rolf Garborg, The Family Blessing; and Robert Lewis, Raising a Modern-Day Knight. Dodd is also available to do seminars on generational blessing for churches.
Dodd fully agrees with Dalbey, that a young person’s search for validation into an adult identity remains one of the most compelling and troubling areas in their lives. “We have children looking for acceptance in all the wrong places and a variety of experiences to satisfy that need,” he says. Providing a path of honour and blessing gives young people the motivation to live out healthy core values and affirm their best qualities before they head out “to make the big mistakes.”
Ben Volman is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
The article above was featured in the Father’s Day 2009 issue of SEVEN magazine.