He had sleeve tattoos on both arms. It felt like a dozen stories crowded together between shoulder and wrist. There was a orange and goldenrod koi swimming down one forearm and a starlight sky interrupted by the cuff of his short sleeved uniform. There was an icon of a woman: Mary, St. Theresa, St. Catherine? I don’t remember all of them because I am grown up and have been told not to stare. He was an employee working at the store where we were shopping for a vacuum cleaner. It was a toss away moment. An errand when nothing more magical or mystical than getting my floors good and clean could possibly happen. He was a great salesman. He said, “No, the cheaper model won’t be able to handle the load of a full household,” and, “let me do a price check.” The things that make you feel decent about spending $299 on a device to extract dirt from your floor. Why, yes, we do have a full house hold. Why, yes, I am a hard working mother who needs great tools. Why, yes, we are being responsible and getting the best price. I shop around.
During the price check, (which did save us 20%, honest) my daughter climbed up on a conveniently located chair and began brushing the orange and red and blue and green swirls on his arms. They were tanned and lightly haired and the pictures looked smooth.
“What doze pic-sures?” her lispy voice asked.
“They are for lots of things. But I’m sure your mom don’t want you to get tattoos. They’re bad.”
“They not bad. They pwetty.”
They not bad; they pwetty. Her soul connected with that young man’s and he blushed as deeply as she will when she hears this story.
One of the epic stories in the beginning of the Old Testament tells of a group of slaves who were freed through a very dramatic wizard’s duel. After the snakes and the blood and the frogs and boils, there came a moment that would mark Jewish tradition forever. The Passover. The angel of death came and the first born male of every home not protected by the blood of a lamb over the door died. (Small aside: angels probably aren’t chubby or feathery, and you might not enjoy Christmas dinner with one sitting on your tree.) Later, out of their captor’s reach, Moses, their reluctant, staff-wielding, wizard leader, began the great tradition of remembrance called the Festival of Unleavened Bread, or Passover. During this holy time, this story was to be passed to the children and kept like “a reminder on your forehead.”
No, I don’t think tattoos are bad. I probably won’t get one on my forehead, but that’s not the point. The point is, we have a story that is important enough to stab it into the deep layers of our flesh. Like a thousand stings. Our stories are not bad.
The story of the church has reached a bit of a crisis point. My house is littered with Legos. We have knights in blue and silver riding white horses, and fiends in black and red riding black horses. The world explained in black and white molded plasitc. Throughout our history as a church, our livery has been strikingly unclear. Do the good guys kill for their cause? Jesus gave clear instructions that did not include a dress code or a taboo on ink. Jesus sighed and said again and again and again, “Quit worrying about the rules and love each other. Listen to each other. Tell your stories. Tell my story. Do this, whenever you meet eat.” He didn’t even say you needed to have a pipe organ. Or not.
Our instructions were to go out and tell people Jesus’s story and teach them to follow and remember and tell. He didn’t even suggest that eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning was a particularly good time for this. He assumed we would have the decency to keep eating and, when we did, to remember his words of love and forgiveness. Now we sit in our wooden pews and listen to words and say words and sing words and promise words and pray words and we don’t remember. We have crafted a world for members only where we can sit uncomfortably and talk about all the things we were asked to do. Worship isn’t what we do as the church. Worship is where we come when we are so exhausted from telling and hearing and eating and remembering that we need to sit and take a breather. Worship is a space for those who need a minute to rest. It’s the time we aren’t out on our great commission. It’s the moment that the music and the prayers and the words can refresh you so you can go out and be the church again.
It isn’t hard.
Rape, slavery, epidemic, hunger, war, hatred, injustice, devastation, death, chaos. The danger and the brokenness seem too big. Jesus would have come up with a different strategy if he could see what we are dealing with now. There are wheat allergies for goodness sake. What is eating with people going to do? What is remembering going to do? Children are sold for sex. People are dying from water born illness while I flush my toilet with clean water. Our food is littered with chocolate that babies are picking until they die of it. What can the breaking of bread ever hope to do against all this?
It is hopeless.
And yet, I have seen the joy and pride on the face of a homeless, addicted man when he brought his puppy with him to church. We prayed blessings on that puppy. I have seen the eyes of a wheel chair bound woman who’s body bulged out through the back and arms of her metal universe shimmer with tears under the weight of a boy’s embrace. A boy who forgot to notice the brown smell of urine and unwashed body. A boy who could see the person and hear the story the world had forgotten. I have heard the voice of my son thank God, sincerely, for the gift of his dead sister—“not because she died, but because she is.”
And I see hope.