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Gardner’s World: The art of sobbing

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that you can’t lead a young person to a place you’ve never been yourself. It’s one of those things we know intuitively - no one needs to tell us that if we want the young people we serve among to grow we’ve got to be in the business of growing too. But crying? Do we need to go there too to be effective youth and children’s workers?

I think so, and I for one love a good old cry. A few things have made me bawl over the past few weeks: the Obamas leaving the White House; me bashing my head on a metal cupboard at work; a young person at a drop-in telling me that they’re beyond ever being loved. All different situations, all cry-worthy.

I’m not an advocate for wallowing in a self-absorbed cry-fest that has little to do with human ache or social injustice and everything to do with being over-tired (something I’m prone to!). But I am interested in crying. More specifically, in seeing how our ability to weep impacts our ability to walk with young people as they face things that make them feel sad.

Handling sadness matters because when it goes unacknowledged and unspoken it can leak out in anger, stress, addiction and distress. We all know what that can look like in young lives. We probably know all too well what that looks like in our lives too. The actor Andrew Garfield who stars in Silence spoke for so many of the younger generations when he said: “I feel like I’ve been gifted and cursed with a closeness to some grief...the grief of living in a time and a place where a life of joy and love is [seemingly] impossible.”

The fact there are young people who don’t know that a life of joy and love is possible makes me want to howl. So as those who believe a life of joy and love is made possible by Jesus, lamenting what closes us off to it sounds like the sort of thing that should be on our radar and in our youth work DNA. It’s time to practice that art of crying out our complaint about where we ourselves, as well as the systems around us, are broken. In short - let’s choose to be really good criers and welcomers of really good crying.

But what on earth would that look like in a ministry setting? How much howling could you feasibly get away with in a primary school assembly for example?

I had my own personal journey into the art of crying on a two-day team retreat last month. I saw that the fun sounding ‘the way of lament’ session was given a whole two and a half hours for us to experience ‘silence and solitude’. “More like sobbing and sleeping time,” quipped one of the team - and they were right. I imagined a bleak couple of hours of beating ourselves up with the state of the world and the blackness of our hearts. But we mostly slept, sobbed and ate our packed lunch on tree stumps in frosty fields north of Bedford (all alone and in silence, obviously) and our awesome retreat leader Mark Scandrette was cool with this. Of course he was. He’s a man who knows how to cry well because he knows that God meets us everywhere, including in our nightmares and struggles. If brokenness and pain are not the end of the story, then sitting with our pain and sitting with others in their pain, has the power to reveal something amazing; Jesus invites us, even in the midst of the darkest of times, into the reality of a God who sees us and comforts us.

The fact there are young people who don’t know that a life of joy and love is possible makes me want to howl

Job understood lament. He knew how to wail and rail against the pain. His final words to God can only be written by someone who has leaned the art of crying: “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” (Job 42:10) Somehow he could now see what he never saw before.

In Les Miserables, author Victor Hugo says: “Those who do not weep, do not see” which makes me wonder if maybe there are things we can only see when we mourn. Are there ways of connecting deeply with each other that can only happen when we both have tears running down our faces? Are there opportunities for growth in our ministries that are made more possible by a good old cry for and with the children and young people we work with?

So where could we start? Mark Scandrette would encourage us to begin to name what’s broken in us: our vanity; fear; greed; insecurity; faithlessness. Then move on to what’s broken in our home, community, local authority, church, business and ministry. I guess at some point the tears will bubble up to the surface. Don’t hold back - let them flow. Let the ache lead you into lament and into seeing more of God’s incredible love, deep comfort and rescuing grace for all he has made.

And we may find that the next time a young person in our presence chokes back a sob or is overcome with pain and anger, our awareness of the God who can be found even in pain may embolden us to invite them into the reality of a life of joy and love that Jesus makes possible.

Sob well.

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