My wife and I spent Thanksgiving in Pensacola, Florida a few years ago. Since our kids go to bed awesomely early, 6:30 eastern, we were stuck in the hotel by ourselves at 5:30 central time every night. There are few things as depressing as sitting on a bed for five straight hours in a Sleep Inn hotel room. In addition to suck your soul out fluorescent lights, the room had kind of this potpourri of bad smells. It was part smoke, part cat, part old Hardee’s hamburger and a smidge of feet.
It was admittedly a good time to catch up on conversation with my wife, but after a few straight days of staring at each other, we were both a little stir crazy. One night I walked down to the BP gas station that was beside the hotel.
Behind the counter at the gas station was a sad woman in her mid thirties. She looked tired, like maybe life was hard for her a decade too soon. Like maybe she didn’t get to be a kid long enough and all that adulthood was starting to catch up on her.
On the outside of her hand was a small greenish gray tattoo of an X. I was curious about what it meant, so I asked her the significance. Here is her response:
“Oh that? That doesn’t mean anything. My mom gave me that one night when she was drunk.”
That was a kind of weird answer, so I asked her how old she was when it happened. She scrunched up her face for a second in concentration and then said, “I think I was 13.”
When I was 13, I was really concerned about my clothes. I was worried that my mom would buy me a Knights of the Round Table shirt instead of Polo. Or that I would have Reeboks instead of Nikes. These were the kinds of things I focused on, because at that age, kids would tease you for the smallest thing.
But what about showing up to school one Monday with a jagged, bloody green x tattooed on your hand? What was that experience like? How would kids react to that? Didn’t it hurt when her mom gave her that? She was drunk, writing on her daughter with a shaky hand and a hot needle.
I thought about that the rest of the trip and was considering writing about the marks that our parents give us. They’re not all as obvious as that and many are actually positive, but I realized that was a narrow way to look at it, because it’s not just parents that give us marks. It’s coworkers and spouses and friends and strangers. And when we don’t know they’re there, sometimes they actually stick.
Someone once asked me to review a memo at work that included some disparaging remarks about my writing ability. There on page 4 was a giant circle with a big red line through it that said “Fluff” and a sentence that promised a coworker was going to eliminate my fluff writing. The person that handed me the memo didn’t realize it was about me. They wanted me to focus on a completely different section of the document but my eye caught some criticism about the company’s writer, and since I was the only writer there, I couldn’t help but read what was written.
As I walked back to my desk, I was crushed. I felt like my complete lack of value had not only been noticed but captured in a memo. In the quietness of my head though, I felt like God popped in and said, “Hey, that memo doesn’t get to define who you are. I do. And I say you are my son.” I was blown away and instead of spiraling into despair and shame over that memo, I went back to my desk and wrote what was probably the best thing I’ve ever written for that company.
I wish that single event was enough to forever shake off the bad marks I’ve got on me, but it isn’t. I still doubt. I still believe the lies of the marks. I still, like lots of other Christians, forget who I am. I still give other people’s words too much power. I don’t have it all figured out. Instead, more than anything, life feels like it’s been a long series of believing that I am not who other people define me to be, I am a son of God. I am God’s work of art. And the more I have been open to believing that, the more He’s shown me it’s true.
The thing I realized, is that an experience can’t change that. My relation to God is not a mark. It is not a big tattoo or a little sticker, it is who I am. I can not completely cover that up or blot it out with failure. The prodigal son tries, he completely messes up his life. But more importantly, he shows how sometimes, the worst marks are the ones we give ourselves. “I’m a bad husband. I’m a terrible employee. I’m ugly.”
These are the words we sometimes hear from ourselves and they are the kind of words the prodigal son tries to say to his father. (I have written about this story so many times it’s getting a bit ridiculous but I love the lessons it has for us.) When the prodigal son rehearses his homecoming speech, he decides to conclude it with, “make me like one of your hired men.” That was the last thing he was going to say. But when he speaks to his father, that is the one thing he is not allowed to speak. The rest of his speech comes off without a hitch. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
These words are delivered without incident, but he doesn’t ever get to say “make me like one of your hired men.” Why is that?
Why are those eight words left out? You can certainly read that as just accidental, that regardless of the words, the father was going to cut him off before he finished speaking. And maybe that’s right. But when I read that, I read a father stopping a son from saying something the father would never do. The father would never make him like one of his hired men. He would never give the son a new mark of slavery. He would never call him employee, instead of son. So he doesn’t even let those words out. He stops him because no new mark would be given that day. The old truth, the one at the core of the son, still holds true.
Despite the pigpen and the prostitutes, the dirt and the deception, the father doesn’t see a hired man.
He sees a son.
He sees his child.
And that changes everything.