It was 11:30 on a Sunday night when I landed at the Raleigh airport. By the time the Uber driver picked me up, it was midnight as we cruised down the highway toward my hotel for a Baptist News Global board meeting.
The driver was a friendly young woman who asked me lots of questions. “Where are you from?” Dallas. “What brings you here?” I serve on a nonprofit board that is meeting here this week. “Oh, would I know the nonprofit?” Not likely, unless you keep up with religion news.
We chatted a bit more, and then she circled back to press me again on why I was in her car at midnight on a Sunday night. “Are you sure I wouldn’t know the nonprofit you’re with?”
Having tried unsuccessfully not to start the dreaded “I’m a pastor” conversation, I decided to spill the beans: “It’s called Baptist News Global.”
“Oh, I know what that is,” she said, much to my amazement. Turns out she had grown up in a Baptist church in the Raleigh area and had read some of our news and opinion content. Truly stunned, I continued in a conversation with her about BNG and faith-based journalism. At one point I acknowledged that in my entire career there was only one time I had experienced what it is like to write something that goes viral.
“What was it about?” she asked.
I explained that in 2016 I wrote a BNG column about my quest to understand transgender identity and how to relate to those who are transgender and their families.
Practically before I finished my sentence, she said: “What would you like to know?”
Stunned again, I began to ask her about her transition from male to female that had happened six or seven years ago. We engaged a meaningful conversation, and I told her about the transgender friends I have made and what I’m still learning from them.
“I wanted to give myself a permanent reminder to be thankful and not to be bitter.”
“If you don’t remember anything else I’ve said tonight,” I concluded, “please know that God loves you just as you are.”
She replied with utmost sincerity: “Thank you for that sentiment, but I’m not sure I believe that.”
“Oh, is that because of your gender identity?” I asked, making the normal assumption.
“No,” she replied, “I’m fine with that. It’s just that so many other bad things have happened to me in life that I have trouble believing a loving God would allow those things to happen to someone like me.”
Stunned yet a third time, I hardly knew what to say. “I’m so sorry to hear that,” I finally said. “But I do understand.”
About that time, we pulled into the covered drive of the Embassy Suites and both got out of the car to retrieve my luggage from the back. For the first time that night, we were in light and could see each other. I was wearing a short-sleeve shirt, and as I reached for my bag, she looked at my exposed right arm and asked: “What’s up with you and punctuation?”
She had noticed the two tattoos — one a semicolon on the inside of my right bicep and one a set of three exclamation marks on the inside of my right wrist.
Standing in the bright light of the hotel driveway, I briefly described my journey through near-suicidal cervical nerve pain, a “routine” surgery and a resulting spinal cord injury. I explained the story behind the anti-suicide campaign that uses the semicolon to say, “Your story is not over,” and the subject of another BNG column. I explained the back story to the three exclamation marks, which at the time was a brand-new tattoo.
Years ago, a journalist friend taught me this sage advice from his college professor: “You’ve got three exclamation marks for your entire life. Use them wisely.” That has become my mantra as a writer through the years as I have led a singular campaign to stamp out excessive use of exclamation marks (as well as excessive use of the Oxford Comma, but that’s another story).
“Like me, she said, she carries scars that cannot be seen.”
I explained to her that just a few weeks earlier, I had passed the 18-month mark on suffering the spinal cord bruise, which meant the window for significant healing was closing. Doctors will tell you it’s possible to continue to rebuild nerves after 18 months, but it is not likely and will be so slow you won’t notice it. After passing what seemed to me a major cutoff date, I wanted to give myself a permanent reminder to be thankful and not to be bitter — because it is so easy to fall into bitterness and self-pity.
My hand and arm hurt every day. I cannot do all the things I used to do. And there are unseen problems from the injury I seldom talk about. But I have use of my hand and arm, I can walk when by rights I shouldn’t be walking, and I have so much to be thankful for. To remind myself of that good news, I expended my lifetime supply of exclamation marks right there on the wrist that doesn’t work right.
The 28-year-old Uber driver listened carefully and then replied: “I understand why you would do that. I had a stroke three years ago.”
Now stunned for the fourth time that night, I stammered something about how remarkable her recovery has been, because she shows no visible damage from the stroke. But like me, she said, she carries scars that cannot be seen.
As we prepared to part ways, she had one last question for me: “Do you think it was serendipity that we met tonight?”
“Yes,” I said, “I believe that must be true.” And I thought to myself: Of all the Uber drivers in the world and all the people who could have gotten in her car tonight, how amazing that we ended up riding along in the dark and that she kept asking me why I was there.
It turns out I wasn’t there for the reason I thought I was. I was in Raleigh that night because both my driver and I needed hope.
This is not one of those pastor stories that ends with someone saying the sinner’s prayer and getting baptized. And yet redemption traveled with us that night. Hope was born anew.
The moral of the story to me is that so many of us carry scars that cannot be seen. And that the life challenges that are most visible to others may not be the ones that get us down the most.
Pondering that is probably worth another long car ride.