(for spoken version read aloud by the author, click here)
It’s the cry of despair I’ve heard far too many times from across the table. Where once upon a time, in the heat of some savage moment, somebody made an outrageously terrible mistake. One that would irrevocably alter the next 5…7…15…25 years of their life. 5…7…15…25 seconds of pure reckless abandon that would haunt their every waking moment from that time forth; that would stain their orange prison jumpsuit with sweat from the nightmares that grieved them in their sleep.
And now, here they sit with me. Their earth-weary eyes, so ragged and sad, are welling up with bitter tears. At a loss for true words, I look away as if to search for them, and whenever I reestablish eye contact, there is a melancholy on their face that can be felt.
People like “Jay,” who was arrested ten years ago for breaking and entering a house he burgled to feed his heroin addiction. Or like “Ricky,” who once assaulted a police officer after committing a heinous crime. Or, like “Maria,” whose facial tattoos etched from her jail cell were as grisly as the aftermath the crystal meth had inflicted upon her frame.
“They wouldn’t love me,” “Jay” gently laments to me with this erratic cadence.
“I was so happy to be there,” he elaborates. “Couldn’t wait to get there. I did my time. I learned from my mistakes. I came out a changed man, all brand new! But they wouldn’t accept me. It was like no one cared about me. Until three of the biggest men there came up to me and told me that I wasn’t welcomed and that it was time to go.”
Where this becomes heartbreaking and in other ways, downright infuriating, is that this kind of thing didn’t happen to them at a bar, at the public library or at a job interview. It happened to them in churches. By people who wear the name of Jesus Christ.
It wasn’t the facial tattoos, though they were certainly a factor. It wasn’t that they smelled differently than everyone else, though it played a role in it . What brought about the rejection and the ostracizing more than anything else was that somebody had the dirt on them.
“It was the mug shots,” “Ricky” says. “When someone is arrested, they put it up there for all the world to see.”
“One of them took my name down and googled me and they found all my mug shots on the internet from way back when. I told them exactly what happened with each one. I came clean and told them that I was guilty of those things. And then I shared the story of the pastor who told me about Jesus, and about the day he baptized me and how I came out of that jail a child of God. I pointed at those mug shots and told them, ‘That’s not who I am anymore! I know that some people break the law again after getting out. But I’m walking with Jesus now. I’m your brother in Christ.”
And that was when they told him it was time to go and appointed three bouncers to send him right back into the street he had come in from.
And it was then as I sat there, having once again heard the cry of despair from yet another rejuvenated human being, in a different place, with similar details but with the identical, sick outcome, that it fiercely registered in my mind.
In the eyes of the law of our land? They very well may have been the only ones in the room with the mug shots. But in the eyes of God throughout our lives? They’re not the only ones with the mug shots.
We all have blood on our hands. We all have an excruciating past. Every single one of us have skeletons in our closets. And in the attic. And in our basement. And in the trunk of our car. And buried six feet deep in our backyard. We all have stepped into the darkness and made the demons gush with glee. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
And no matter how hard we may try to excuse our carnality away, making ourselves to be harmless misdemeanor sinners, while looking at the “Ricky’s” and the “Maria’s” and the “Jay’s” of the world as the felony sinners, we’ve all committed outrageously terrible heinously savage sin crimes against our Creator. Every last one of us has a rap sheet.
I have never been arrested for anything in my life. I’ve never been to jail. In the eyes of the government databases, I have an immaculate criminal record.
But, I had a spiritual rap sheet. I had so many mug shots from my crimes against the kingdom of God, that it froze the screen and shortcircuited the computers.
Imagine it – an embarrassing, disheveled mug shot for every single time that we have ever sinned.
I know sometimes we like to think that serial killers and rapists and pedophiles and people who commit bestiality are running around committing the real sins; the big sins. But the crimes of lying, of worry, of selfishness, of cowardice once had us in the same pin as the Charles Manson’s and the Ted Bundy’s of the earth. It doesn’t matter what sin one commits – the very first sin we ever committed made us a bunch of Jeffrey Dahmer’s. One sin made us lawbreakers and necessitated the Lamb of God to offer Himself as the sacrifice.
But it’s also what makes me the happiest. The one person in Scripture who reminds me the most of myself isn’t Abraham or Moses or Paul. It’s Barabbas.
Barabbas was the notorious thieving-insurrectionist-killer who was inexplicably exonerated when he should have been executed. What set him free was Jesus being crucified in his place and becoming sin itself so that He might make Barabbas and us and the entire human family the antithesis of what we were – the righteousness of the Divine.
There we sat in our jail cells. Haunted night and day. Guilty of every disturbing detail our rap sheet had documented. But now, thanks to the grace of heaven, such a one that reaches even me and even you, our chains have been unshackled, our prison cells are swinging open in the night and the criminal record listing all our felonies has been erased and replaced with our names being added into the registry of heaven.
We can look at those mug shots and know – “That’s not who I am anymore.”
Until then, the “Jay’s,” the “Maria’s” and the “Ricky’s of our broken world continue to search for someone who will love them. Someone who will acknowledge their transformation. And someone to celebrate life in Christ with.
What a sadness it is – that everyone else in the circle gets to be forgiven and to be defined no longer by their worst day. But certain people’s must forever be ostracized and defined by those 5…7…15…25 seconds of their life, because of what happened in ’83.
Perhaps the way we will learn to destroy this practice is to view the grace of God as something that’s even more blessed to give than it is to receive. Then, as it is in any real family, “me” becomes “us;” “mine” becomes “ours,” and suddenly, now we’re sharing Jesus and we’re sharing redemption instead of trying to hoard Him all to ourselves.
“Jay” found that belonging at long last sometime later when he discovered not all churches are like the one he experienced. “I’m back!” he exclaimed to me with the smiling exuberance of a first grader.
I’ll never know if “Maria” or “Ricky” ever did.
What I do know is, whenever we encounter the “Maria’s” and “Ricky’s” of our future, we need to address and own up to the elephant in the room: that their mug shots and crimes are no less hellish than ours were.
And then, if we do, when we look into their faces, we will see who we used to be, looking back at us.
“When Paul (*the one who called himself the chief of all the sinners) came to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.”
– Acts 9:26-27