I encounter her waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store, where our humanity is laid bare by the frustration of waiting and other people and uncomfortable awareness of self.
Like our very humanity, her shoulders are bare. Above her left shoulder-blade, there is a mottled patch of skin, scar tissue telling the tale of her life. The pattern it makes is undeniable: a large cross. The ink is long gone, but the shape of it remains impressed upon her.
Immediately, I am filled with curiosity, which I imagine (and hope) is mixed with compassion. The very idea of it tells the story in my mind’s eye, unfolding in short vignettes and clips formed of my own reverie.
This woman once held such profound faith that she elected to suffer for it, even with a cross. She displayed her faithfulness proudly, perhaps defiantly, a badge of honor, the tattoo an external reflection of the inner truth that her faith could not be separated from her. But the analogy is incomplete, for the tattoo can be, and has been, removed.
Not having a tattoo myself, I understand the pain it costs only by resemblance and conjecture. I know enough to know that it is not a small thing. Thousands of pin pricks to pierce the skin and deposit pigment, blood welling up from below. But the pain of removing a tattoo—I later learn—is worse.
She spent hours under a laser over many weeks, the spear of light heating the ink until it began to break down. Most report the pain as far greater than that of getting the tattoo in the first place. Despite this, the motley skin on her shoulder can only mean one thing: something happened so that keeping the tattoo of a cross became more painful to her than searing it off.
In my mind I play through many scenarios—the death of a loved one, rejection or harsh treatment by fellow believers, interpretation of scripture that clashed head-on with what she had been told was acceptable, the hypocrisy of the faithful or some other unfortunate event that left her broken. It seems to me that the hurt must be deeply personal to have moved her to bear the physical pain of tattoo removal.
As I imagine her life and her pain—too afraid (or, as I’d prefer to think, too polite) to ask her about it—I begin to wonder how much we Christians, acting in our capacity as professing Christians, do to hurt others and turn them away from the church. Or worse, from Christ.
We, collectively as Christians, regardless of denomination, do a poor job of admitting our faults, holding back our judgments and, as John Wesley warned us, refraining from doing harm. It is true that some of the pain and offense results from willing misconception that the church is God, but we could always be clearer that we have our own failings and are no better than anyone else. As important, how do we order our lives and our witness to do no harm, to avoid misrepresenting Christ to the world?