The Girl with the Former Tattoo

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?

The Honest Seeker

We sit together at breakfast this honest seeker and I, a young man who I have the great good fortune of meeting this morning, who reveals more to me than I to him. By happenstance, if such a thing is to be believed in, we have been brought together, him seeking faith, me welling up with unexpected passion to explain my own.

Our subject is honest about his position. He sees great value in the social structure the church provides, great wisdom in the moral and philosophical precepts the scriptures teach, great promise in the philanthropic work the body of Christ undertakes. And yet, he will state matter-of-factly that he remains unsure about the spiritual reality of Christianity.

On this foundation he stands, his mind open, seeking for ideas and doctrines, carefully and skeptically weighing them, patiently considering the advice and thoughts and experiences of others, ever pursuing a reality he is not sure of, unsure he possesses a spiritual inclination, intellectually fascinated by the possibility of encountering the reality he hears so much about from others, ready to be convinced but pessimistic that he can be.

As we talk he questions me with deep and thoughtful interrogatories: Why is there evil and suffering? Why do Christians see all sin as equal? What is the resurrection supposed to mean? I struggle along to provide what answers I can; he follows with more difficult queries, testing not only me but the very limits of rational thought. When I tell him that some questions are beyond human understanding, he pauses, pondering the thought, piercing it with the sharp edges of his mind, perhaps perturbed by the prospect but satisfied by my honesty (if not the truth of my assertion).

He holds my attempts at answers in his hand, turning them slowly to view them from every angle, taking the measure of them, ascertaining their boundaries and their flaws. When I tell him that faith is a truth that must be experienced, not proved, he looks back at me with understanding, his young eyes seeming older by far.

I appreciate his skepticism. He is cautious before ever finding faith. Even before he believes, he is building a tower, testing its foundations, proving it to himself before he makes it his home. His, when he finds it, will be a strong faith, well considered, conscious of the ambiguities with which one must become comfortable to maintain faith, both reasonable and beyond reason. He is honest, surely the God who sees his heart will reward such honest seeking.

We part ways after a few hours but agree to meet regularly to continue our fellowship. But I am no guide, merely a fellow traveler on a road we all must walk to its destination.