As part of my ongoing process of cultural adjustment, I’ve been developing my ear for country music. There is something about its authenticity that makes it uniquely appealing.
I can’t say I know much about this Jason Aldean feller I heard on the radio the other night when driving with Marina (the country station is a rare spot of common ground). Marina tells me he’s her “favorite.” I was taken by the song ‘Tattoos On This Town.” In the context of rural, small-town life, he sings about the interactive relationship we all have with our environment:
It sure left its mark on us,
We sure left our mark on it,
We let the world know we were here,
With everything we did,
We laid a lot of memories down,
Like tattoos on this town.
The singer sets his sights refreshingly low; he’s thinking of peel-out marks on the highway, and his enduring presence in “this town” as akin to a couple of smart tattoos. But whatever horizons are laid out before us, we are each marked by our world… and seek to leave the kind of “marks” on the world that really matter.
We are marked by our experiences, our relationships, some people like to be marked by their possessions. Those of us who have experienced suffering or wounding bear marks as well: scars that may be physical, emotional, spiritual. And those of us who are disciples of Jesus are marked by our experience of him, his truth, his grace. Those of us who have followed him into mission to the world seek to “leave a mark on it.” However, at our best, the mark we leave is not ours but his: the experience of his forgiveness, the attainment of his liberation, the comfort of reconciliation through him.
We ourselves are marked by our love of Scripture, our living conviction that God’s truth has been presented to us in verbal form. But when we look at the Bible, what do we see? Marks. There are indeed concepts, deep truths, facts and emotions expressed in a sweeping variety of linguistic and literary forms. But they are, after all, made up of words which are made up of letters… nothing more, in and of themselves, than marks on a page (or, perhaps, a screen).
How is it that these marks mediate truth and grace to us who receive them? This morning I was reading, and reflecting on the meaning of, Lamentations 3, where an anguished Jeremiah, seeing his city fall under foreign domination, his countrymen carried away into captivity, seeks to tie his conviction that “the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases” with the crushing devastation to which he was witness. The meaning of this, or any, passage of Scripture does not reside in the marks on the paper.What sort of relationship is there between the marks on the page and the experience of God’s truth marks our souls?
Or, to get back to Jason Aldean, what is the meaning in the marks we leave on the world? Whether we’re talking about the old piece of rope dangling from the overhanging branch over the mill pond which tells the world “Here is where I used to play,” or the results of our efforts to mobilize the church in Ukraine to stand against human trafficking or be safe places for our HIV-positive brothers and sisters, or a legacy of laborers and leaders committed to multiplying transformational communities devoted to Jesus… their true significance is not found in either our direct performance of actions nor in the direct results that may come from them. The meaning is found in their durability – they last (like the “Ali will you marry me” under the paint on the overpass, or in the lives of others who have experienced the touch of Jesus through us in a way that lasts beyond our direct connection with them.) And they arise from their reference – whether it’s a simple “I was here” or the reality of the Lord of mission who sends us forth in service, the marks we make a point beyond ourselves. So they’re not really ours at all.
Whether it’s carving my initials in a tree in the woods here, speaking the truth in love, being the hands and heart of Jesus to those who are oppressed… I want my marks to point beyond themselves, and beyond me. My desire is that the marks I leave will point to the living reality of God and the reality of a redeemed community, infused with his Spirit, which offers a real alternative to the world as it presents itself to us. In other words, I want people to read the Good News through the marks that I leave, wherever they may be.