I joined the church at a time when outward adornments, particularly those worn by women, were frowned upon in some quarters. That was back in the day…maybe even the day before back in the day. Noticeable makeup and earrings are two things I remember hearing comments on from time-to-time. Even my first instructor in the ministerial course of study shared how his wearing a wedding band was problematic for some in his church community which was on a very conservative district. He used, as a teaching tool in that course, the decision he was faced with whether to wear his wedding band at his ordination because he knew some would be offended if he did. I won’t share his decision here; it’s his testimony. As silly as it seemed to me that anyone would take the time to be acutely observant about such things, it was nevertheless an important lesson for me because others treated it so seriously.
As time passed, and earrings and makeup became more or less passé in evangelical circles, tattoos took their place as topics of corner conversation for a few. The only people I knew who had tats when I was a child were those who had been in the military. Even as an undergraduate during the early 70s when all kinds of societal norms were being challenged, tattoos or other body modifications weren’t broadly popular, with the exception of one social fraternity I know of that branded all of their pledges. But once tattooing began being practiced across a broad range of American society, tattoos began to creep into the church. As you might expect, some folks felt the need to comment.
I’m grateful that, by the time tattoos were common, the leaders of my church never made a big deal out of it because I never wanted to be part of a church claiming that all were welcome if, in fact, they weren’t. There are way too many instances where that’s the case…and for more reasons than just tattoos. People who were tatted-up or pierced were welcomed and we had a few. The heart and compassion of one heavily tattooed person in particular was a great blessing to our church.
By the time she began to attend, I had become the lead pastor. After a time, we got to know each other. She was bright, well-educated and accomplished in many ways. When she decided to share her story with me, it included the reasons she had gotten full sleeve tattoos on both arms, wrist to shoulder. I had never seen them because she always wore long sleeves whenever she came to the church (I’m pretty sure she did that out of concern that it might be problematic for some). The story she shared with me was rife with suffered abuse, long-term self-abuse, horrible decisions, tragic loss, and times of deep pain I cannot share here. In Scripture, the experiences she shared with me are often referred to as “mire” and “the pit.” Her tattoos were visual stories of her hard journey.
By the time she arrived at our church, Jesus Christ had already done a great work of delivery, forgiveness, and cleansing in her, and it was obvious in big and little ways. She jumped in with both feet and was very supportive of the ministry from day one. I began thinking of her as someone who had great potential to assume a leadership role. Sadly, she had to eventually move because her military husband was returning from an overseas deployment (I had a chance to connect with him some too over social media). It had been a long time since she and their two girls had been able to be with him so their decision to move to his stateside duty station was the logical and right thing to do. I kept in touch with her after her move long enough to learn she had begun pursuing a doctorate in her professional discipline.
It’s easy to allow things that are ultimately superfluous to capture our attention when all seems to be going well in our lives. That kind of prosperity gives us time to go down spiritual rabbit holes, often about the decisions others have made about their lives. It seems to me that all of that extraneous stuff tends to dissipate when our comfort, our norms, our preferences, and our safety is under siege. Coronavirus has upset the apple cart of much in the world and continues to do so. It is having a dissipating effect on non-essentials, and we in the Church are being brought face-to-face with our commitment to the cost of discipleship.
Toward the end of Galatians 6, the Apostle Paul acknowledges that he had grown tired of having to defend his apostleship to some in the Church, noting that he bore the proof of his ministry by the brands (or marks) of suffering for Christ on his body (Galatians 6:17). Perhaps he had to resort to that defense because too many couldn’t see the Cross of Christ branded on his heart; they were too busy focused on their internally derived standards for who was qualified.
I believe the Cross of Christ was branded on the heart of my former parishioner which made the outward brandings she bore unimportant to those who chose to know her. I believe that same branding is on the hearts of many who do not fit into someone else’s non-biblical standard definition of what it means to be a deeply committed Christian. May that same branding of the Cross be burned deeply into all of our hearts so that we serve Him with faithfulness and gladness.
© Byron L. Hannon, 2020. All rights reserved to text content.