“I know the meaning of the image itself,” Shane, the tattoo artist, said, “But what’s the significance for you?”
It’s a question a lot of tattoo artists will ask as they prepare to begin a new work on a new client.
He was looking at the picture of the Sacred Heart I had provided him as inspiration for what I was looking for. It’s the latest piece in a slowly evolving 3/4 sleeve tattoo I’ve been slowly developing over the years. My faith story is being written out in tattooed artwork on my right arm and each image tells a part of my life.
There is the Holy Spirit dove, inspired from a church banner, diving down with flames rising up around it–a reminder of God’s calling on my life. A calling I had not expected and one that took me ten years to fully embrace. The words, “And the Spirit of God moved” arches around the dove–words from the very beginning of the collective faith story we have in the Old Testament and a reminder to me that God has come before all things and will be what remains after all things. There is nothing in my life so new that it is outside the realm of God.
Below it are a pair of angels stretching their arms in celebration of the Star of Bethlehem shining between them. This was inspired from the embroidery work on a clergy stole and marked an important era of my life in which my constant search for God came crashing into God’s search for me. Like those angel, I stretch for something just beyond my reach, but thankfully the mercy and grace of God is one that reaches down to touch us and so I’ve experienced the transforming power of Christ in my life because of it.
Then the words: “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.” My favorite verse. My mantra. One I often say to myself when things are getting tough or my path seems obscured. It is a prayer that often escapes my lips. And it is the principle by which I strive to live. It seemed only fitting that those words, which have meant so much to me during so much of my life, should be written upon my arm.
When I was ordained I had a chalice and wheat stalks added to the constantly evolving artwork–a commemoration of a ten-year journey that brought me through discernment about my calling, into candidacy for the ministry, seminary, commissioning as a provisional elder, and eventually the full ordination. It was a long journey which began many years before that with a calling… and yet, after all those years of study and preparation and discernment, I never cease to be amazed that God has found me worthy to stand before a congregation and offer the holy sacraments.
As I thought about the meaning of the other tattoos I found myself answering Shane’s question quickly about the Sacred Heart I had asked him to design for me.
“I’m a pastor,” I said, “And I’ve just come through a very hard five years and I want the reminder of what the suffering and hurt has been about.”
I was a little surprised to hear the admission of hurt come out of my mouth. I had a rehearsed story about the theology of suffering with Christ ready, but what poured forth when I opened my lips to speak was a confession of suffering.
The past five years have been challenging. There has been conflict in my ministry setting. There was the anti-freeze poisoning death of my beloved dog. There were health issues doctors were slow to recognize. There was an illness which landed me in the hospital for several days (the first time I’d ever been that sick). There was gossip and hurtful accusations and people so angry at me that they couldn’t be in the same room with me (something the people-pleaser in me finds particularly hurtful). There tears and heartache and battles against deep depression.
All these things came into crisp, clear focus as Shane began working on the most painful and difficult part of the tattoo: the thorns. It is detail work. It required slow, steady, focused concentration as Shane slowly and painstakingly etched each thorn into my arm. As he began to fill the pattern out, he began adding more thorns than he had initially drawn into the stencil.
“I like a lot of these thorns,” he said. And I agreed. “Lets make sure they’re sharp…”
He went back and added sharp, prickly points to each thorn and I winced a little. Some people will tell you tattoos don’t hurt–and while they may not be excruciating pain–they are lying to you. Tattoos do hurt. And these thorns were painful… each thorn reminded me of each wound sustained over the past five years. Each tear shed. Each sleepless night and agonizing prayer.
But then Shane changed needles–no longer needing to focus on the fine details of the thorns. Now he was filling in the heart and the radiating light around it with broad strokes. This is considerably less painful work–and I watched as the beauty of the red heart took shape, as the light bursting forth from around it began to add texture and depth to the image.
The Sacred Heart is a complicated image to think about.
On the one hand there are the thorns wrapping around it, pricking it, strangling it… there is the wound in the side where the spear has been thrust. But on the other hand there is the beauty of the heart itself–red and full of love and compassion and mercy, beating in defiance of the hurtful things surrounding it. Flames of mercy and brace burst out of the top bearing the harsh image of the cross–the instrument of torture and death–but these flames don’t burn to consume, they burn to give life. And all around rays of light burst forth because no matter how dark the wound in the side or the thorns may seem, the darkness cannot overcome the light.
I thought about this complexity as Shane brought the heart and the light and the flames into view on my arm.
There had been dark moments over the past five years. I still have the tear stains to prove it. But there had been so much more beauty. So much beauty that the thorns just weren’t able to mar. There may have been wounds, but there was a burning flame of passion and love rising out of it. And there was always light.
In the midst of the hurt and anguish were vibrant moments of love and mercy. Moments of forgiveness and reconciliation. Moments when the light shone so bright it seemed hard to believe there had ever been any darkness at all.
You see, faith isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. There are difficult moments, hard moments. But when we search for the light we’ll see that there is a beauty that rises above all the ugliness.
As the image took shape on my arm, the profundity of the full meaning of it took shape in my heart. Yes, there had been hard times. It felt good to confess that. But I’m still here. I’m still on this path. And the light is still filling my life.
And even though there may be some details which seem ugly, the beauty of the big picture is overwhelming.