It is public knowledge now that one of my students, Rae’Jonn Higginbottom, was arrested by Clinton Police and the FBI in connection with bomb threats that were called in on Clinton High School in Clinton, Miss.
Just an hour before he was arrested, Rae’Jonn 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 currently out of jail on bond 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 remediates students who are behind and harbors those who cannot function in traditional classrooms. Our school provides both of those services.
Our faculty comprises 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 classes.
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 courses.
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 Corinthians 13), and that hope is instrumental in the Christian understanding of faith itself (Hebrews 11:1).
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 (Ephesians 1:12, Colossians 1:27) and even for salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:8).
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.
Disappointment, though, is one 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.
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 (John 11). 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 (John 11:18). Further, Martha, sister to the dead Lazarus, passively blames Jesus for allowing her brother to die (John 11:21-22).
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” (John 11:23-26) and Lazarus actually stumbling out of his 4-day-old tomb, Martha must have experienced the soul-stretching doublethink that hope and disappointment can synthesize.
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.
Brock Ratcliff is a minister at Madison Chapel in Madison, Miss. He also teaches mathematics and computer science at Clinton Alternative School in Clinton, Miss. A longer version of this column appeared on his blog, Fides Quaerens Intellectum, and is used with permission.