Lent 2013, Entry 23

In an earlier entry, I offered the chance for patrons to interview me as if they were a late-night talk show host…and I do have to say that I was expecting more questions via FB or here in the comments. Nevertheless, I’ll hold up my end of the bargain and answer the ones that come in!

This one came from my friend Laura:

When did you know you wanted a tattoo? I hear you can never stop with an even number – is that true for you? What reactions have you received from other Christians, whether professionally or personally, that surprised you the most? I don’t ask this by way of deciding to get a tattoo myself. I live in a town where tattoos are plentiful. I just find them interesting 🙂

Well, I started thinking about tattoos when I first started seeing them on the band members of the punk groups I was really into when I was a teenager. I grew up during a time and in a place where a guy getting an earring was considered a huge symbol of rebellion, and tattoos were a deep part of the fringe…the domain of true outcasts and misfits, or extremely tough guys like soldiers. In the time and place where I live, that’s no longer the case. Now it’s not quite the domain of true outcasts and misfits. It’s more the domain of the hip and with-it.

But my Mom, affectionately known as Charlotte the Scar, was quite clear that tattoos were verboten. She held financial college assistance over my head and dared me to test her resolve on the matter. Thankfully, I seemed know a good deal when I saw it and no tattoo seemed worth debt-free university degrees. One time I did entertain going with friends to Columbus, GA (about 45 minutes from my university, where there was a military base and a plethora of tattoo parlors) to get our fraternity letters on our insteps…but the one I wanted cost a great deal more than I had on-hand at the moment.

My sister got one when she was no longer getting any money from Charlotte the Scar and moved to California…but she went to great lengths to keep it hidden from Mom just to be safe. Of course, I often tried to expose that reality whenever we were together.

Then life happened. I graduated, started in ministry (in Alabama) and started a family. I never really seriously considered it, although I often wondered what I’d get if I did get one. Kind of in that way everybody does.

Almost 10 years later I’d moved to a much more cosmopolitan city and got involved in a church that certainly understood and taught grace. It was about that time that I decided to grow my hair out for donation to organizations that serve cancer patients…and I made a friend who was a tattoo artist by trade and made jokes that he’d be happy to give “pastoral discounts” if anyone on our staff wanted to drive to Denton to get one. Still, I never really got serious about it.

Then my mom got very sick and it was apparent to all of us that it was only a matter of time before her home-going. My sister and I would spend a lot of time at her bedside and chat about life and such. Interestingly, she talked a great deal about her parenting of us…things she was glad she did and things she felt like she’d have done differently. At one point she said, “You know, you always wanted a tattoo and I’m pretty sure the reason you didn’t is because I felt so strongly about them. I don’t know why I cared once you were an adult. You should get one.”

This caused a very memorable family moment as my sister was playfully barking at my mom ranting about how she had to conceal her tattoo for 10 years while now this reversal of protocol would allow me, as the “favored child,” to get one “guilt-free.” After we were all laughing about who the favorite child was and such I asked my mom what she thought I should get since she’d done more thinking about it than I had.

There was a long pause.

Then she said, “You know, you might want to get a marlin. It would be a nice way to remember me and your dad.”

There was a stare between me and my sister. She teared up a bit. If you know anything about my family, you know the marlin story was a very significant part of our collective experience. If you go to the archives of this blog you can get a short story of it on the November 20, 2003 entry…it was on another blog hosting group so the link doesn’t work correctly on entries that far back. Anyway, she mouthed “you gotta do that” and I knew I was going to.

So, that’s how I decided to get the marlin on my right wrist. It is deeply personal to me, and I truly think it was part of my grieving process.

Then, a year or so later, a friend of mine had an affair and I was on vacation in the same city where his daughter lived. I had dinner scheduled with them the evening we all were made aware of the events that rocked their family. Having known these girls since they were in high school I saw a look in their eyes that profoundly affected me that night. So, I got tattoos that would represent my daughters above the marlin as a reminder that I never wanted to be the cause of that look in my two daughters. The ballet slipper and paintbrush and my girls’ names were also part of a grieving process.

At the same time I was realizing the importance of “story” as a method of evangelism and doing a lot of soul searching about dealing with the past hurts in my life that I’d kind of stuffed down deep into my brain that I never had dealt with in any meaningful way. I needed to clean out some cobwebs and as I was processing I got a series of tattoos on my left wrist that make up one tattoo where I can tell the story of my journey with Christ through the mix of symbols in that one.

The last one I was going through a lot lot of tough issues as I was thinking through my ministry future and it became apparent that I was grieving as well about that because I love the body I was serving and it was becoming apparent that God was doing something in the congregation and my own life that didn’t seem very congruent…and I knew I’d be leaving a church of 15 years if God didn’t intervene. The Dr. Suess tattoo above the other one on my left wrist has the lyrics of a Frank Turner song that symbolize a lot of what my thinking was at that time even if I knew that silence would be an easier way to keep my job.

You can check my Facebook page photos under “ink” and see them all.

So, to your questions about not being able to stop at an even number: That isn’t my experience. I don’t get them unless it’s a very meaningful and deep thing for me. They help me process and symbolize my story. I’ll get another if I feel I need to do either. But I don’t feel a need to get one just to get another one. Others do feel that, though. For sure.

As far as personal and professional reactions, well, when I was interviewing for a job much of last year, I discovered pretty quickly that they actually helped me discover whether or not I would fit into a church culture. What I mean is that I would submit a resume that looked like a good match and then churches would send an e-mail asking for video of me teaching because my resume seemed to match their needs. Those churches where that wouldn’t be an issue were quick to continue the dialogue about the possibility of working for them, and those that knew I wouldn’t do well in that environment were equally as quick to send me a rejection notice.

But, in both cases, most churches were pretty much understanding that no matter the long hair and tattoos, 25 years of ministry in only two jobs with no breaches of anything that would be in violation of anything that would keep me from being qualified as an elder, well, spoke a lot louder than hair length and body art. So, professionally, it didn’t really hurt at all. I mean, I don’t want to work for a place that I wouldn’t fit within their culture and a church that knows I wouldn’t fit wouldn’t be very loving toward me if they brought me into situations.

The same is pretty much true with parents and people within the congregation. They kind of understood that I’ve been in it over the long haul and there must be a reason I was hired if I have long hair and tattoos that goes far beyond tattoos. The reaction of folks is either, “Man, that’s cool that a pastor has tats.” Or maybe, “Huh. Whaddya know? A pastor with tattoos here in our church. Different, I guess, but whatever, man.” Or, “He must not follow Jesus. A pastor with tattoos! We’re outta here.” I get a LOT more of the first two these days. If they feel the last way, it’s highly likely they are looking for a MUCH different situation to be in within a church body. I mean, the reputation of the church I currently work for is pretty well known as far as being driven by grace, so if folks are visiting, they’ve likely done their homework and I’m not much of a shock to any visitor.

The only reaction is in cross-cultural situations, like Africa or Haiti…I’m pretty much the circus coming to town in those environments. Fun, though. And actually it helps build relationships. Like, in Burundi at airport security, a guy x-raying my bags got big eyes, and strummed an air guitar and pointed at my hair and tattoos and asked, “American musician?!” very excitedly. I hated to disappoint him when I said I was a pastor. He seemed bummed, but what can you do?

So, that’s sort of the tattoo story…

…and other questions from the patronage? Feel free to ask away!