About a week ago I got a tattoo. I wanted it to be in a place where I can see it, but I’m practical enough to also want it to be in a place where I can cover it up. It is precisely in the place where a watchband rests on my wrist, and just small enough to be completely hidden whenever necessary. And for me, I suspect it will always feel necessary to hide it during worship. I know that some people would be distracted by it, and I don’t want to distract anyone from the sacred work of worshipping God together. I know full well that some people straight up wouldn’t care for it one bit - people like my mother, who noticed it immediately when she came to visit yesterday. She looked the other way and tossed out the classic Beverly burn: “To each his own, said the man as he kissed the cow.”
A couple of years ago I preached a sermon in which I admitted that I wanted to get a tattoo. I marveled over the irony that the reason I wanted to have “do not be afraid” inscribed on my arm was the very same reason I would likely never do it: I’m a chicken. Fear and anxiety have been fairly constant companions throughout my life, and I recounted my fumbling attempts to learn to entrust myself to God; to have faith that truly nothing can separate me from the Love of God in Jesus Christ.
A few months after that sermon, Marty K. and Dal I. presented me with no fewer than 1000 temporary tattoos, so that I could painlessly emblazon “Do not be afraid” on my arm whenever I wanted. I’ve gone through a lot of those tattoos, for myself and for friends and parishioners who needed a word of peace.
And in the meantime, I have realized that there is actually something that goes even deeper than fear.
It’s hard to say it out loud, to be honest. But I’m trying to tell a good story, and good stories require honesty and vulnerability.
The fact of the matter is this: I struggle deeply to know that I am loved by God. I know it on an intellectual level. But layers of shame and self-doubt conspire to make it impossible for me to truly believe this sometimes. I wish I knew why I carry this burden of insecurity. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel a little bit out of place, a little bit off. I can’t remember a time I didn’t have an inner critic incessantly pointing out my every imperfection.
So I decided I needed a reminder. A permanent reminder. Not so much to remind me that I am beloved, but to remind me that I believe that I am beloved enough to have tattooed it on my arm.
I was originally going to have the word surrounded by images of water - blue raindrops here and there on my arm. I wanted it to be baptismal, to be an echo of the story of when Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan and the skies broke open and the Holy Spirit alighted on his shoulder and the voice of God said, “This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” But I realized that the delta of blue veins just beneath my skin provide all the river imagery I could ever want. And besides, this thing hurt bad enough as it is.
On my way home from the tattoo parlor I panicked. I thought: This was a terrible mistake. I have really kissed the cow this time. I stopped at my friend Amanda’s house just shy of hysterical. She knew that I was going to get the tattoo, but she didn’t know what it was going to be. I wouldn’t show it to her at first. She joked that I’d tattooed her name on my arm, which made me laugh just as I was about to cry. And then I finally pulled off the bandage and we both peered at my arm.
Oh. I thought. It wasn’t so bad. It was actually kind of perfect. And just as I was making peace with my tattoo Amanda shrieked.
You did tattoo my name on your arm, she said. “Amanda” means “beloved”!
We laughed a lot, and I cried a little, and I hope to God that every time I see this word on my arm I will feel a flash of holy, abundant, and unconditional love - poured out without ceasing, even for one like me.