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Friday, May 17, 2013

On Hope and Disappointment, or, "I Know the Guy Who Made the Bomb Threat"

It is public knowledge now that one of my students, Rae’Jonn Higginbottom, was arrested on Thursday by a combined team of Clinton Police and the FBI in connection with the bomb threats that were called in concerning Clinton High School. Just an hour before he was picked up he was sitting at my side doing Algebra 2, wrapping up his last assignments before the end of the year. He had picked up his cap and gown the night before.

Rae’Jonn is now held by Clinton Police on $100,000 bail, which he certainly will not be able to meet. Therefore he will sit in jail awaiting the conclusion of the investigation that will certainly lead to more arrests and will miss the graduation that he was so excited to experience. It is as though one stupid decision, a prank, has dissolved all of the work that he and I have done this semester.

For a little context, let me explain the situation at the Clinton Alternative School. Many public school districts have an alternative education program that meets the needs of the district in educating students in need of remediation and in situations when certain students will do better academically if they are in a much smaller class or separated from their peers. Our school provides both of those services.

Our faculty is composed of the most patient, resourceful, and nurturing teachers in the district. At any given time one of my fellow educators could be responsible for a class of students working in many different courses. For example, at one point in my regular day, I have a class of eight students, three of whom are in Algebra 1, one working on Geometry, two practicing Algebra 2, and two studying Transitions to Algebra. Each gets a lesson and assignments, and each is expected to make significant progress each week toward completing their course.

Of course there is more to it than just small, mixed-discipline classes. At the heart of the Alternative School is the student body, which is composed of those who have fallen behind for various reasons, those who have been incarcerated, those who are otherwise unable to learn in a traditional classroom, and those who are transitioning into the district mid-year. One of the great ministries of our school is our participation with the Methodist Children’s Home. Several MCH residents have attended our school to become acclimated to Clinton Public Schools and have then transitioned into their appropriate campus. I’m very proud of the work we’re able to do with these students.

The summary of this context is this: in our building we are all ministers, counselors, experts in our disciplines, and, above all, conveyors of human dignity. Ours are the students who need the most care, the most patience, and the most attention. Ours is the task of the long-suffering teacher who must find appropriate expectations for these students and work and work and work to see them succeed. Above all, we are a faculty established on hope.

As I consider the circumstances of Rae’Jonn’s prank call that has landed him in jail facing federal charges, I’m caught between the hope that is inherent in the mission of our school and the disappointment of the reality of many of our students, especially Rae’Jonn.

The Scriptures declare that hope is one of the three great features of the Gospel[1], and that hope is instrumental in the Christian understanding of faith itself.[2] We often trumpet hope as the great ally of the believer in the face of trial or suffering. We sing about how our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. We hope for glory[3] and even for salvation.[4] The Church, then, trades on hope; in the midst of a world groaning under the weight of sin and need for salvation the Church stands as a witness to the hope that all is not lost.

I think, though, that believers should practice a little hope-as-protest.

Hope is defiant. It is contrary. Hope is against the status quo and keeps one eye on the horizon. Hope is the realist’s impression of events painted with colors that seem more cheerful than they need be. Hope is having 40 acres of the worst land in the state and sowing seed anyway.

Hope is not impervious, though, at least in the human heart. Disappointment is one manifestation of the many things that combat hope in my soul, much like grief and pessimism do. Disappointment is the substitution of an unexpected reality in the place of a well-constructed optimism. It is the pouring in of our time, effort, and prayers for a student who is a hair’s breadth away from graduating against all odds only to have that opportunity snatched away by that same student’s foolhardy choices.

I am disappointed. I love Rae’Jonn and the rest of my students, and I earnestly pray for them daily. We have seen so many students fall away from their academic path this year; those who remain are like those soldiers who have survived a firefight and are almost home again.

Can the Christian honestly feel disappointment and hold to faith, hope, and love simultaneously? Yes. I am personally caught in the tension between those two poles, knowing that there is nothing I can do to bring Rae’Jonn back to school and also hoping for him and praying for his success and that he encounters the living God.

I think of the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.[5] In that narrative we can feel the tension between disappointment and hope laid out for us as plain as day. We learn that Jesus wasn’t far from the dying Lazarus.[6] Further, Martha, sister to the dead Lazarus, passively blames Jesus for allowing her brother to die.[7] In that moment between Jesus promising Martha that her “brother will rise again…I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”[8] and Lazarus actually stumbling out of his four-day-old tomb, Martha must have experienced the soul-stretching doublethink that hope and disappointment can synthesize.

We must find a way to protest against the darkness with hope as though we were participating in a spiritual sit-in. Hope is found in that moment when our work has evaporated and we yet persist in our prayer and faith. Hope is a rallying cry in the face of folly at the federal level. Hope as protest lives in the tension between reality and our Spirit-enabled vision of the way things could be. On the one hand is the reality, a reality that threatens to break the armor hope provides. On the other is the hope of those who believe Jesus’ words and resurrection. In this middle ground we are often left saying, “God have mercy.”

That’s where I am today; caught between hope and hell.  God have mercy.

[1] See 1 Corinthians 13.
[2] See Hebrews 11:1.
[3] See Ephesians 1:12 and Colossians 1:27.
[4] See 1 Thess. 5:8.
[5] See John 11.
[6] Cf. John 11:18.
[7] Cf. John 11:21-22.
[8] John 11:23-26.

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