Meet Joe. Joe is a fifteen-year old who was randomly placed in my sophomore Hebrew Scripture class. He walks in disheveled, out of uniform and groggy every morning. He sits in the back, slouches, and never raises his hand. I have learned that instead of becoming offended by a kid like Joe, it helps to get curious. But when I would ask Joe questions, he would not be rude or mean, he was just slow to light up or offer me much. But I don’t mind earning it. Relationship does not always come easily. Toward the end of the term, we studied lament. I would read my students lament Psalms and play them songs that had lament lyrics. I found most teenagers are afraid to call God out, to get angry or be sad or blame God. That fear often leads to distance, apathy and resentment. We talked about lament as possibly the last relevant form of prayer. In prayer we ask for things a lot, but rarely take the time to give thanks or offer anger. I assigned my students to write a lament to God. I told them to scream, cry, doubt, throw whatever they had at God. God can handle it. Anger is less offensive than apathy.
On days that big assignments are due, I have students share projects with the class. They only need to share what they feel comfortable sharing, but on lament day, Joe raised his hand for the first time. He began to read his lament, filled with raw, honest why questions, aloud in front of his twenty-five classmates. We learned that his favorite aunt had died unexpectedly while she was pregnant at age thirty-five. One page in, his voice got high, his chin started to shake, and heads dropped in reverence as he began to sob. I sat, awe-struck in the front of the room. All the kids looked to me, but I did not know what to do. I held my breath and let him cry. The distance between me in the front and Joe in the back felt oceans away. He started again, only to break down twice more. Determined to finish, he would rub his eyes on the sleeve of his black hooded sweatshirt and try his voice again. We gave him space to lament. When he finished, we sat in silence, but it did not feel awkward. Joe had filled the room with God. I thanked him for sharing, for being brave enough to lament, for teaching the class better than I ever could. As we transitioned, I put my hand on his shoulder and asked if he needed a break. “No, I am ok now. Thanks.” And now, when I see him in the hall, he is the first to say hello with the faintest of smiles.