I had never heard of the Rite-13 Ritual until I saw it listed on my worship bulletin a few months ago. My first reaction was to become annoyed when I saw the additional program item and to begin to calculate the additional minutes we were going to be sitting in our pew. Our nearly two-year-old daughter had just had her weekly meltdown over being left in the nursery, and all I wanted was for this liturgical hour to be over so I could scoop her up in my arms and take her home.
Started by an Episcopal Church in the 1980s the Rite-13 Ritual is modeled on the Jewish bar and bat mitzvah and intends to recognize adolescence as a time of transition in a young person’s life. After the opening hymn, six gangly, slightly awkward teenagers and their slightly nervous parents made their way up to the front of the congregation. They began with a reading based on Psalm 139: “God, investigate my life, get all the facts firsthand.” Most of their voices were barely above a mumbled whisper, perhaps due to the sheer discomfort of being center stage at church. In between each passage the youth read, the congregation responded, “Your creation is wonderful, and we know it well!” I’m a strong advocate for participatory worship, but this kind of of responsive reading always feels a little odd to me.
The last portion of the ritual, however, caught me off guard and left me in tears. The youth knelt down as their parents prayed a blessing over them. We couldn’t hear what was said, but watching these parents lovingly speak words of affirmation and encouragement softly into their children’s ears was beautiful. Now that I’m a parent, I couldn’t help but imagine what it might be like to stand in their place one day and pray a blessing over my daughter. But I don’t think that’s what brought on the tears.
I had a flash of a memory of a similar scene. I was also thirteen standing at the front of my church with my mother and a group of other youth and parents. We were not there to receive a blessing or to be affirmed, however, but instead to proclaim our commitment to sexual purity until marriage. It was the late 1990s and the True Love Waits movement was just ramping up. I guess you could say my church was an early adopter.
Instead of reciting Psalm 139, we spoke these words instead: “Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.” In this evangelical church of my childhood the only readily available affirmation of me as a teenager was tied to an ill-informed, naïve promise I was pressured to make about sexual abstinence for the foreseeable future and beyond.
It was a perfect example of the contradictory theological messages I got constantly from my faith community: God created you, so you are good. But you are also sinful, so you are bad. I remember a church friend once jokingly said, “You totally suck. But Jesus is great through you.”
Twenty years have passed since that True Love Waits Sunday, but as Madeline L’Engle wrote, “I am still every age that I have been.” Over those two decades, I’ve internalized that message of earned and performative self-worth I got as a teenager. It shifted from worth rooted in sexual purity to one tied to academic achievement, transformed to professional success, and then on to marriage and parenthood and the illusive “balance” of doing all of it simultaneously. I still yearn to hear those words of acceptance that I needed then and need to this day.
As I see it, the heart of the Rite-13 Ritual is a commitment on the part of young people to seek divine wisdom throughout the journey of life and for the community of faith to pledge to be a place of unceasing support, friendship, and care for them. No strings attached. I’ve kept that bulletin insert, formerly a source of annoyance, on a prominent place on my desk. I turn to it on particularly hard days as a constant reminder of the truth of my own sacred worth that can’t be lost or earned. It simply is. “Your creation is wonderful, and we know it well!”
Katey Zeh, M.Div is a thought leader, strategiest, and connector who inspires intentional communities to create a more just, compassionate world through building connection, sacred truth telling, and striving for the common good. She has written for outlets including Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, Response magazine, the Good Mother Project, the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion, and the United Methodist News Service. Her book Women Rising will be published by the FAR Press in 2017. Find her on Twitter at @kateyzeh or on her website kateyzeh.com.