Everyone has a story. Sometimes it’s hard to share that story, and even then, it can be difficult for others to hear your story. There is a great deal of competition for our ever-shortening attention spans.
I’m fascinated by stories. I like to hear them, especially deeper stories that are close to the heart. Talking about the weather, sports, or the latest TV shows takes the place of sharing our stories – and yet we long to be heard.
“Tattoos take what’s on the inside and put it on the outside.” ~Nadia Bolz-Weber
Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh is built on the premise that the art that we apply to our bodies often comes with a story. Nadia Bolz-Weber told me that “Tattoos take what’s on the inside and put it on the outside.” I’ve discovered that simply saying to someone, “I like your ink. Is there a story?” can lead to interesting, and often deep conversations with persons.
In His book, Soul Tattoo: A Life and Spirit Bearing the Marks of God, Samuel Kee writes: “While we may get tattoos for many reasons, there’s one common purpose: to tell a story. Perhaps to tell the story, the story of our humanity. Tattoos are a way of permanently recording one’s sense of dignity, lest we forget. With permanent ink, we remember a feeling, a person, an experience, a love, a victory, a loss. All the stuff that makes us feel our humanity.”
If I ask, I may hear their story, and both of us may be blessed.
Blessing, however, is never intended to be hoarded. I like to say that we are given “leaky blessings” that pass through us to others. Through this blog, I hope to share my journey, and some of these conversations, with you, and hopefully you will also be blessed.
“Can you recommend any other artists or shops that I should visit in the Kansas City area?” This was the last question I would ask when I was setting up my shop visits. And the name and shop that came up several times was Kimo Russell at Modified Ways in Blue Springs, MO. One of the artists even told me that when they wanted some work done, they would set up an appointment with Kimo.
Modified Ways is just about the opposite of Weirdo’s, where I had visited the day before. I wrote about that experience in my last post. Both shops are unique and inviting, but while Weirdo’s is sort of loud and in your face, Modified Ways has a clean, suburban feel to it. It feels like the sort of place that Coach-bag carrying professionals might go to get inked. While there was some art on the walls, it was more subdued and the tattoo samples were provided in 3-ring portfolios for Kimo and his fellow artist, Logan. The music was laid-back jazz
I met Kimo, who was very cordial and pleased that I had chosen to stop by his shop. Behind his workstation was a large self-portrait of Kimo working at his craft. He asked about my trip to Weirdo’s, and let me know that he was probably going to be a man of fewer words than the artists I had met there.
I also met Logan, who was working on tattoo on a young man’s chest, which already bore the address of some Bible verses from Ephesians 6 on the other side. If I remember right, it was verses 10-13. The man was pleased when I asked him if the verses referred to the “Armor of God”, saying “Ah–very good!” He then explained that he was reading his way through the New Testament and was enjoying the letters written by the Apostle Paul.
This was a young man who was reading the Bible, and yet his dialogue with Logan was seasoned pretty heavily with profanity. With his language and his tattoos, it would be easy for some to dismiss him as a lost soul. I’ve talked elsewhere in this blog about how easy it is for us to lead with judgment rather than curiosity. Curiosity leads me to believe that this young man was not much different from Jesus’ first disciples, a ragtag group of blue-collar fishermen. The Gospel of Mark tells us that one of those fishermen, Peter, “began to call down curses” when he was under severe pressure–and this after he had spent three years with Jesus himself! This same foul-mouthed fisherman became one of the key leaders of the early church.
Kimo had a young first-timer too (see the post about Weirdo’s). She had him artistically inscribe a relative’s birthday and Psalm 23:1 onto the side of her waist. I asked her about the Bible verse, and she explained that she herself was not a religious person, but her relative was.
“I’m not a religious person” is sort of an interesting statement. I’ve learned to ask the speaker what they mean when they say that–again, in a manner of curiosity, not judgment. Sometimes the response is “all religions are the same”, or “religious institutions suck” or even, “I don’t believe in God”. This last one can sometimes lead to an interesting conversation, especially if you follow their statement with this request: “Can you describe the god you don’t believe in?” After hearing their description, I often find that I don’t believe in that god either.
Her experience was a little less traumatic than that of the young lady at Weirdo’s, and afterwards she was very proud of her new tattoo. As I mentioned in my last post, new tattoos are often a source of excitement and a desire to share the story with others. Her mother’s boyfriend was also in the shop, first to encourage, and then to have Kimo continue some of the work he had already begun. His entire arm was covered with intense colors, and today Kimo would add even more.
While all this was taking place, another young lady entered the shop and sat down on the couch across from the ink stations. I thought I might have recognized her from Kimo’s portfolio (she’s featured on the homepage of Modified Ways). I was surprised to discover that Amber’s visit was not a tattoo appointment, but instead she was there because Kimo had told her that I, “the guy from Ink and Skin”, was going to be stopping by.
We talked about her tattoos, the most prominent of which makes her right arm looks as though it has morphed into a bionic, steam-punk combination of fully functioning motorcycle parts. Out of this I learned that she loves to ride motorcycles and that she and a friend were creating some videos of the tricks they were doing.
Amber asked if I had any tattoos, and I told her I did not, and that part of the Ink and Skin project is an attempt to reach across prejudices that can separate people who are different on the surface, but share human commonalities underneath. She confirmed what Kimo had shared with me earlier in the day, that prejudices run both ways: it’s not only people without tat’s who can be judgmental of those who have them, but those who have them can also be judgmental of those who do not. I asked Amber if she’s heard, “You’re such an attractive young lady, why would you want to spoil that with all these tattoos?” She said “all the time”, and said that she is also judged because she is a single mom. A single mom with tat’s.
Then she shared that she also gets comments about the scars on her knees, which were covered by her jeans. The comments are rude, unkind, and of a sexual nature. But her scars come from a horrible car accident from which she has not only the scars, but also a significant amount of memory loss. She doesn’t remember the relationship she had with her boyfriend, who was also severely injured in the accident.
Amber asked me what I do for a living.
I’m sometimes hesitant to share that I’m a pastor, because that revelation can significantly change the vibe in the room–especially in a tattoo parlor! My father, who was also a pastor, told me that when he would visit the barber in the small town where he served, the owner would always greet him with a loud “Hello Reverend!” My dad’s not much into titles, and after a few of these greetings, he told the barber, who responded, “Oh it’s not for your benefit that I say that–it’s for the other guys in the shop.” Exactly. It changes the vibe.
So I told Amber what I do, adding that I know that the Church is often seen as a judgmental place, and that we do struggle with it. But I also shared some stories of how my present church has worked through some difficult issues while holding onto the grace needed to stay together. She seemed to understand, and later that afternoon, she asked if I would pray for her when I got back home. She was going to see a doctor soon, and she was nervous about it. I gladly said that I would.
Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh is an intentional wordplay. On the surface, the title refers to the stories that tattoos can engrave onto the skin of the bearer. As you can see on my home page, Nadia Bolz-Weber has said that “Tattoos take what’s on the inside and put it on the outside.” But the idea of “Word Made Flesh” is also an ancient concept that comes to us from the first century, AD. One of Gospel writers used it to describe Jesus as God’s Word, who “…became flesh and blood,and moved into the neighborhood.” In other words, God ceased to be a remote, abstract concept and became Jesus, a human being living among us. God left heaven and came to earth as Creator among his creatures.
While Jesus was among us, he crossed the boundaries between rich and poor, slave and free, insider and outsider. He told stories that changed people’s perspectives. He suggested that there was another kingdom–a kingdom of justice, reconciliation, beauty and wholeness–that was available now, and available to all.
And so that is also part of the Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh project. In a way, it’s as though the barber has announced to the world that there’s someone different in the room. The vibe has changed, not to one of rules and judgments, but to the potential for human connection with the divine, for second chances, and for love. That’s what happened when the Word was Made Flesh, and it can still happen today. My hope is that it happened, even if in a small way, in conversations at Modified Ways.
You’ll find it just behind Honolulu, and just ahead of Los Angeles when you search the internet for the “most tattooed cities“. Right here in the conservative heartland of the Midwest, Kansas City is #9 on the list. Yes, you read it correctly: K.C. is more tattooed than L.A.! The ranking is based on the number of tattoo shops per capita, and Kansas City’s number is six per 100,000 people.
So when I began to do my research on the Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh project, one of the first places I put on the list (after Daytona Beach) was Kansas City. This part of the research journey would focus on the shops themselves: the artists and their clients. KC is just a three-hour drive, so that made it even better.
Let me back up for a moment. Several years ago, I crossed the river to attend the Best of the Midwest Tattoo and Arts Convention in Council Bluffs, Iowa. I had a few interesting conversations at the event, and I retained a large stack of business cards from tattoo parlors that I thought were mainly in the Midwest. However, as I planned my trip to KC, I looked through the stack and only found two in the KC metro area. Undaunted, I called these two shops and was received warmly and encouraged to stop on by. The last question I asked them was if they had the names of other reputable artists and shops in the area. They were happy to supply those, too. I booked a hotel on Trivago and drove south on I-29.
My first stop, which turned out to be an all-day affair, was at Weirdo’s Tattoo in Belton, Missouri. I opened the door to the sound of heavy metal music and waiting room full of customers. Weirdo’s is the workplace of several artists, including “Weird Harold” Simmons. Harold was the one I had spoken to on the phone, so the receptionist retrieved him and introduced us. He took me in and sat me down in his workstation. We began talking about body art, and how tattooing is an intimate, and yet invasive relationship between the artist and their client. Harold lamented that younger artists sometimes fail to make that connection.
He also mentioned that Kansas City is unique in its camaraderie between the artists and shops around the metro area. One would think that there would be some acrimony due to competition between so many shops, but there is plenty of work, and the successful artists book months–sometimes up to a year–ahead.
In addition to being an artist for the past 17 years, Harold is the bearer of multiple tattoos, including several on his face and neck. A woman gave Harold his first tattoo in a motel, surrounded by a group of bikers. Ironically, he would later own this woman’s tattooing equipment.
I have to admit that if we had encountered one another prior to the Ink and Skin project, it’s doubtful that I would have taken the opportunity to get to know someone like him. And that’s precisely the reason why this is so important! When someone is different from us, our first response is often to turn away, and in doing so, we replace an encounter with an assumption or, even worse, a judgment. That, right there, is the essence of what turns out to be prejudice: judging someone before we have a chance to get to know them and hear their story.
Harold’s first client for the day was accompanied by her mother and sister. Because Aimee had recently turned sixteen, she needed her parents’ consent to have her body artistically modified. It helped that the tattoo was the same one that her mother and sister already bore. It wasn’t long after Harold started in before she became queasy. No problem for the guys in the shop–they’d seen this before and knew just how to care for the lightheaded young lady. They brought out a cot and some cold washcloths and Harold joked with the family as he patiently waited for Aimee to recover. A bucket was also on hand, but fortunately, was not needed.
Ryan Dugger, another artist at Weirdo’s, was helping a woman make a connection with her nephew, who liked Star Wars and Legos. If you look closely, you can see that it’s not just any Yoda he’s drawing on her calf–it’s Lego Yoda! When we saw this woman’s car, we saw quite a number of Lego Star Wars figures on her dashboard. What I really like about the picture is the face on Ryan’s shirt–maybe she’s curious to see what the picture is, or perhaps providing a bit of quality control at Weirdo’s.
After spending a day with these artists, I wished I had chosen to visit artists and shops earlier in the project! It was great to be around them and their clients, who were enthusiastic about their tattoos and ready to share the stories connected to them. At Weirdo’s, I discovered that tattoo artists are some of the most welcoming–and some of the most hygienically conscious–people on the planet. It would be easy to be intimidated by the music and the macabre art that filled the walls of the shop. But once you get beyond that, these artists do their best, not only with their art, but also with their care of other human beings.
“I like your ink. Is there a story behind that?” Who would have thought that a simple question inquiring about the body art of a stranger could result in a meaningful conversation during motorcycle week in Daytona Beach, FL? I have known about the spiritual significance of body art for some time. I have admired the intricacy of tattoos of friends, but I’ve never actually asked a complete stranger about their tattoo expecting they would be willing to describe in great detail when, where, and why they chose a particular design. While recently in Daytona during motorcycle week I observed and participated in a number of conversations around the meaning and significance of a tattoo.
While tattoos are billboards that speak to lost love, pain, and promise on the bodies of those who wear them, one cannot automatically assume just because their “ink” is visible for everyone to see, they are willing to talk about the meaning. When I used the above line on our busy waitress, and pointed to a specific tattoo circling her exposed upper arm, I was surprised when she smiled and said, “my tattoos have personal meaning for me.” She took my order and left the table. I wasn’t expecting her polite yet resolute decline.
What my encounter with these two different responses to our innocuous question, “I like you ink. Is there a story behind that?” tells me is that not all people are cut out of the same cloth. Some are only too happy that anyone notices they have body art and are subsequently willing to talk about it. Others view their tattoos as a private expression that means something to them and perhaps their closest confidants. Whatever side of the tattoo conversation we encountered during our brief stay in Daytona during motorcycle week, I am more convinced than ever that tattoos may be the new entry into meaningful spiritual conversations. To that end, I look forward to approaching the next heavily tattooed stranger with this simple phrase, “I like your ink. Is there a story behind that?” The only caution is if one asks this question, be prepared for a lengthy story and conversation at least half the time.
Tattoos used to be reserved for rebels, bikers, prisoners, gang members, and so on. It was an easy marker that this person didn’t belong to the mainstream of society. And it was easy to judge those persons, especially since their tattoos marked them as members of an alternate society. The one socially acceptable group that regularly sported tattoos was the military, and when you asked them about it, the story usually went something like this: “We all got them. We’d get out on leave, get drunk, and wake up with a tattoo.”
By the way – I’ve found that, with an additional question or two, even this kind of story leads to a great conversation. “Where did you serve? Which branch? Do you stay in touch with some of those guys/gals?”
Religious folks–okay, conservative Christians like the ones I grew up around–used to have a response to those who sported tattoos. Quoting 1st Corinthians 6:19-20, they’d say: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” I didn’t get this quoted to me for sporting a tattoo, but I did get it for smoking cigarettes (I’ve been a non-smoker now for 25 years). Smoking and tattoos were seen to be “desecrating God’s temple”. And tattoos had a Levitical prohibition as well: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:28)
I’m not one to easily dismiss Scripture as archaic and therefore irrelevant. Nor am I one to say that we should throw out the book of Leviticus, or even one of its chapters, just because there are some practices in Leviticus 28 that are no longer commonly observed or enforced. After all, there is plenty of good material remaining for us in that chapter. So instead of discarding the text, I would ask the question: “What might this have meant to the original hearers of this prohibition?” One possible answer may be in 1 Kings 18, where Elijah is found holding a reality-show competition with the priests of Baal. When those priests became frustrated that their god was failing to make an appearance, “they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.” (1 Kings 18:28) One might assume that the prohibition in Leviticus is condemning a practice that served as an attempt to bring power to the bearer of the cuts and tattoos. Since this is not a common practice today, a literal application of its prohibition might be a misappropriation of this passage. Tattoos, in general, are not intended to force the hand of an invisible, impotent god.
Going back to the 1st Corinthians passage, one can also re-frame what is happening there in light of its original intent. In 1 Corinthians 6, the Apostle Paul is making the case that one should “flee from sexual immorality.” He’s not talking about smoking or getting a tattoo. He’s saying that what we do with our bodies and with others’ bodies is important, and that there are consequences for the misuse of our bodies.
Let’s take this from another angle. If you’ve been in a church or two, or especially a great cathedral, you’ll notice something about the stained glass: it usually tells a story. With pictures instead of words, with art instead of intellect, the colored glass transforms sunlight into narratives of how God creates and then interacts with God’s creation; from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemane to the Garden Tomb, outside of which Mary found a Gardener who revealed himself as the risen Jesus Christ. Although breathtakingly beautiful, stained glass is more than pretty colors. Its task is to present the gospel in a way that words alone cannot.
if the body is a temple, one might say that a tattoo is stained glass.
So then, if the body is a temple, one might say that a tattoo is stained glass. Sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, and other times faded and nearly indecipherable, each application of ink to the body becomes word made flesh: story on skin. Tattoos share stories. Sometimes the stories are poignant and beautiful; other times they’re simpler stories of comrades and the consumption of alcohol. But each one is unique, and like their tattoo is on the surface to be seen, their story is just beneath it, yearning to be heard.
Every person is a living biography: a story that may be told, but that is still unfolding. I believe this is also the case with the gospel: its good news can be told, but it may also be witnessed in the lives of others. What I’m trying to do with Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh is to harness the stories that are portrayed on skin to help their bearers discover the incarnate story of how God is active in the lives of each person God has uniquely created to bear God’s image–an image designed to tell the story of that same unique God.
So I encourage you to continue to view the body as a temple, and to consider that by saying “I like your ink–is there a story”, you may also be asking, “What’s the story to be seen in your stained glass?”
There are a lot of coffee shops in downtown Santa Cruz. I think by the end of the week, my friend Chris and I had stopped into most of them. It’s important to me to maintain fully optimized blood-caffeine levels throughout the day, and I like good coffee–so much that I even roast my own at home. That led to an interesting conversation at one of the shops that was experimenting with roasting a small batch of coffee on site. An employee was teaching herself how to “cup” coffee, which is the art of identifying, analyzing, and ranking the many flavor notes that can vary greatly from one coffee to the next. We chatted for awhile, and then I noticed that the barista was sporting a tattoo on the inside of her bicep. It featured a forest at the bottom and a canopy of stars at the top.
I told her that I liked the tattoo, and asked if there was a story to go with it. She was pretty shy about answering, and then when I encouraged her to share more, she kept speaking in monosyllables.
“It’s a constellation,” she finally answered.
“Is it a particular constellation?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s one that I like.” Okay…
It was time for lunch, and I was tired of the high-priced, less-than-spectacular fare of the downtown strip restaurants. Through Yelp, I was able to locate a hot dog stand within walking distance that looked promising. It was getting late in the week, and the research wasn’t going so well. I had thought Santa Cruz, with its California surf culture, would be optimal for Ink and Skin research, but it wasn’t turning out to be the case. I had never had to work this hard to draw out people’s stories. It seemed like everywhere we went in Santa Cruz, people were on a different page than we were. From the concert to the surf shop to the coffee shops, we ran into one dead end after another.
On the way to the hot dog stand, we encountered a young man sitting on the sidewalk with his dog. He look up at us and disinterestedly remarked, “Repent.”
“What?” we asked.
“You need to repent,” he said again, without looking at us.
“What does that mean?” While I wasn’t expecting a theological treatise, as a pastor I wondered what angle he was taking on the idea of repentance. As he sat on the sidewalk, he was preparing to paint something onto a long wooden board that he had beside him.
“If you have two shirts, give one to the one who has none. The rich are taking from the poor.” I didn’t disagree at all with his ages-old prophetic message.
I asked, “What’s your dog’s name?”
“Dog”, he replied offhandedly.
“Is he friendly?”
“Yeah sure, whatever.” I proceeded to befriend the dog while the street preacher began working on his sign. Without planning it beforehand, Chris and I began to try to get this man to go off of his cold, impersonal message, but he pretty much stuck to his script. We moved on, remarking that the man didn’t seem to care who his audience was, nor was he interested in getting to know who he was trying to save.
A few blocks away, Happy Hot Dogs delivered the goods I was looking for. It was a street vendor with a cart that produced boiled, “skin-on” Chicago-style hot dogs and steamed buns. It was just right.
On the way back to the strip, we encountered our street preacher again. He now had the outline of several letters, a few of which he had filled in with a permanent marker. The single word REPENT served to reinforce his earlier message. I asked him where he was from. “I’m not from this world.” Chris asked where he grew up. “I choose not to grow up.” Chris asked where he lived when he was ten years old. “I’d rather not remember.” Perhaps this was the only clue he was going to give us as to who he was or what he was about.
After reflecting on our encounters with this man, as well as the week of strange encounters in Santa Cruz, I came to a realization about the Ink and Skin project. In order to have a legitimate opportunity to ask someone about their ink, I need to establish at least some minimal form of relationship with that person. It doesn’t need to be much, but there has to be some contact other than a cold approach, even if the goal is to get to know the other person. A couple of examples might help to explain what I’m getting at.
If I’m at a restaurant, and I notice that my waiter has an ink sleeve, I will have already established a client-customer relationship with that person before breaking out a question about their ink. The same is true if I’m talking to a barista or an airline ticket agent or a person sitting next to me at a ball game. There’s a reason other than my question that has brought us together.
I realized that what I was trying to do in Santa Cruz was to either (A) come on completely cold with the question, which was uncomfortable for the other and for me; or (B) create an artificial situation such as the coffee shop where the question could be asked. Neither worked very well. What has worked in the past is what I would call “incarnational” asking. It means that I’m already there, in the flesh, and the beginning of a relationship has already taken place. It’s not cold, it’s not artificial. Instead of a scripted situation into which I might insert someone (i.e. the street preacher’s method), I need to really be there.
This is true of Christian evangelism as well. Working in cold or artificial conditions doesn’t lend itself well to reaching out with the good news. There has to be a relationship that has already sprouted before we have earned the opportunity to speak. But even greater than this is the fact that Jesus came in the flesh to share this message with his disciples. Not cold, not artificial, not distant or off somewhere else, Jesus made his home on earth with real people in real places with a real message to share into the real relationships he made. Incarnational: real, and in the flesh – like a tattoo with a real story to share.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13
“What about you? Do you have any tattoos?” This question comes up often in the conversations I have with people about their ink and the stories that go with their artwork.
My answer is always the same: “No, I haven’t got any tattoos myself. But I’ve thought about three tattoos that I might have an artist look into creating.” If they’re interested, which they often are, I’ll take the time to describe the three tattoos and share the stories that they would signify. I’ll say more about these in upcoming posts.
But I’ve recently added a fourth, and that’s the one that I’d like to talk about now.
My name is John, which comes from a Hebrew word meaning, “God is gracious.” My father was a pastor and a biblical polyglot, so I figure he knew exactly what he was doing when he gave me a name that says something about God. In my teens, I learned that I was also named after someone. I already knew that my middle name, Carl, was carried down from my maternal grandfather, but now I was told that my first name came from my father’s cousin, John Lloyd Madvig, who was killed in the Korean War. He was just 20 years old.
Recently, while checking his online military obituary, I made an incredible discovery: a military collectables site had somehow acquired the Purple Heart medal given posthumously to John Lloyd’s family. I contacted the owner of the website and he agreed to return it to our family for the cost of what he had paid. The price was significant, but the items we received were priceless. In addition to the medal, there was a three-ring binder filled with family memories of my father’s cousin. The binder included newspaper clippings, photographs, telegrams, letters, documents, and even the stripes from John Lloyd’s field and dress uniforms. There was also a typed copy of some of John Lloyd’s journal entries and correspondence.
I showed the collection to my father on Memorial Day weekend. He too was amazed at my discovery. John Lloyd, born in 1930, was a year younger than my father and had been one of his best friends.
One of the documents informed us that John Lloyd Madvig “…embarked on board USS BAYFIELD, APA-33, at San Diego, California and departed therefrom 1Sep50. Arrived and disembarked at Inchon, Korea, on 21Sep50.” On September 4, the young Marine wrote in his journal about nightly Bible studies on board the ship, and his faith can be seen growing from one entry to the next.
In the first entry, he noted that he and two other Marines “…had a discussion with the Chaplain about the ‘why’ of this conflict. The more I see and hear the more I wonder if this couldn’t actually become the conflict which means the end of the world. It may not happen now, but it could be sort of a preamble.” Three days later, he wrote, “Three added to Bible Class making 26 present. We sang for 20 minutes before reading. One song was ‘Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.’ I haven’t got courage yet to show my colors, but the last verse hit home as far as I am concerned. It fits almost perfectly as to what is going on. ‘The strife may not be long.’ I am praying that it won’t. ‘This day the noise of battle – the next the victor’s song!’’’ And then he added, “Tomorrow night will be communion. I’ve never gone before, but I am going now and I am going to make any vows I make from now on good.”
It wouldn’t take him long to begin standing up for Jesus. It can be difficult to share our faith with anyone, but sometimes it’s even harder with our own family members. On September 15, John Lloyd wrote to his older brother back home: “Don’t forget you accepted Christ as your personal savior. I’m beginning to see that there’s more to it than just standing up before people and telling them. You also have to live it.”
The USS Bayfield arrived in Inchon two days after the five-day amphibious landings and beach assaults that constituted the Battle of Inchon. The next day, he wrote to his family: “The main reason for writing this letter is to tell you not to worry. It may seem an odd thing to say, but I really mean it. There are a few verses in Philippians that have meant much to me: ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ and ‘do all things without murmuring and disputing.’ These verses I think answer any fears you, me or anybody could have.” Soon he and his fellow Marines would join the United Nations forces in recapturing Seoul from the North Koreans.
Another document from the three-ring binder declares, “13Oct50 embarked on board USS Q082, at Inchon, Korea, and departed therefrom 15Oct50. Arrived and disembarked at Wonsan, Korea on 26Oct50.” The Marines were intended to be part of another amphibious assault at Wonsan, but during a five-day wait to clear mines in the harbor, the North Korean Army withdrew from the area. While they waited onboard the ship, John Lloyd wrote in his journal, “It’s about the second week I’ve been called ‘the reverend’.” Quoting Matthew 5:16, he continues, “‘Let your light so shine among men.’ It’s odd that it took so long. It started because I didn’t drink or smoke under almost forced conditions.”
After John Lloyd’s ship finally disembarked at Wonson, he and his fellow Marines became part of an operation to secure a 78-mile supply route from the eastern coast into the mountainous heart of North Korea. On November 1, 1950, as they began their journey northward, they heard news that the Red Chinese were now entering the war. The news was confirmed the next day, as they encountered the new enemy, whose quantity was unknown. At 11:00 that night, the Chinese began their attack, raining down on the Marines from the ridgelines. John Lloyd’s company was overrun, and sometime after midnight on November 3, my father told me, John Lloyd was killed while trying to save his commanding officer. He stood up for Jesus by laying down his life for his friends.
Three days later, John Lloyd Madvig was buried in a temporary cemetery in Hungnam, North Korea. There he would lay for four years, until his parents received his remains on January 7, 1955, and had him buried at Crystal Lake Cemetery in Minneapolis. Here his grandfather’s body already lay, as would his father, who passed away in 1980.
They too were named John.
So I am named after someone. I was given my name twelve years after a family lineage was violently interrupted on a steep hillside in North Korea, by someone who never knew his name, by a nameless someone who was likely killed on that same hillside.
For that reason, my fourth tattoo—if I were ever to get any tattoos—would be an image of the Purple Heart I had the good fortune to discover.
The one belonging to my father’s cousin and best friend.
The one with my name on it.
Additional historical information from US Marine Operations in Korea 1950-1953: Volume III – The Chosin Reservoir Campaign (Illustrated Edition), by Lynn Montross and Captain Nicholas A. Canzona, USMC. Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015.
Chris and I stopped by the Coffee Cat again on Tuesday morning. This time, the barista was able to concoct the vacuum pot coffee I had tried to get the day before. Half the fun of this kind of coffee is the brewing experience, which involves one glass container with coffee atop another that is filled with water. Heat forces the water into the upper chamber, where the coffee brews. When the heat is removed, the liquid returns to the bottom chamber as some of the smoothest coffee that is to be had on earth. I asked the barista if he enjoyed this sort of coffee at home, and he confessed that he only brought out his vacuum pot when guests were over. It did look like a lot of set-up and clean-up work for a cup or two of coffee, so I chose not to purchase the equipment. I was pleased with the coffee, but I was disappointed that the process was more work than it was worth.
Our next task was to rent some boogie boards and wetsuits. Our plan was to spend some time on the beach looking for tattoo stories, and this equipment would give us an excuse to be there and something to do between conversations. We got a suggestion for a surf shop from the barista, and off we went to another interesting experience.
A salesman met us as we entered the shop. We explained, in what I believed to be clear, unaccented English, that we wanted to rent two boogie boards and two wetsuits. The salesman took us to the middle of the store, where he pointed out that they had quite a selection of surfboards for sale. Then he disappeared into the back room of the store. We never saw or heard from him again.
Eventually another salesman asked if we needed some help. Again I explained that we were looking to rent two boogie boards and two wetsuits. He responded that he would be available to take us out and teach us how to surf, and we might want to pick out a couple of the boards we had seen moments before. He also let us know that he could film the entire experience for us. While this was all helpful information, especially if we had wanted to be filmed while learning to surf on brand new surfboards, we began to wonder if some sort of recreational drug was taking its toll on this young man’s ability to discern what we were really after.
We decided to try again: “We’d like to rent a couple boogie boards and a couple of wetsuits.”
“OH! You want to RENT stuff? Yeah, okay, follow me.” We followed to room where they had one boogie board (“Oh the other one must be out.”) and a ragtag assortment of wetsuits. We asked if there might be another surf shop nearby, and he directed us to a spot closer to the beach. After some similar bidirectional conversation about pricing at this new shop, we were ready to hit the waves.
Which were awesome, by the way. But another revelation that I probably should have foreseen: It’s impossible to see tattoos on someone who’s clad in a wetsuit.
The following day, we found a busy coffee shop in downtown Santa Cruz that has a lot of wide-open space, indoor and outdoor seating, and large tables that could be shared by multiple groups of customers. We spent the morning drinking coffee and playing several small card games that Chris designed. His new line of games is called Pack O Game, and each game is about the size of a pack of gum (hence the name). The idea was that the games we played at our table would draw the attention of other customers, and perhaps some might be sporting tattoos with stories to go with them. While our practice may sound a bit strange, Chris and I have found that people’s curiosity is naturally drawn to see what game is being played. We had a small amount of success: one fellow with a BAYER tattoo said that it reminded him of his home in Germany. Not much more than that, though.
When we broke for lunch, we walked down Pacific Avenue to a sandwich shop. We both ordered sandwiches, realizing afterwards that we probably could’ve done just as well sharing one of the humongous meals. As we were eating, we spotted the couple I mentioned in the previous post, once again looking forlorn and disoriented. I could see them outside the window, huddled together on a cement curb that separated the sidewalk from the landscaping. I ate half of my sandwich and then suggested to Chris that I was going to give the other half to the couple, who were half-heartedly panhandling the people who passed them on the sidewalk. I asked the woman behind the counter if she could wrap my leftover sandwich, and she happily obliged. Just as she handed it back to me, in walked the young man. He walked up to the counter and asked if he could buy a sandwich for four dollars, which was less than half the price of their cheapest sandwich. Without waiting for the employees to respond, I walked over and asked if he would like half of my sandwich. He thanked me and took the sandwich back outside and sat back down next to the girl on the curb.
I returned to our table inside the restaurant and continued to watch the couple outside the window. I guess one might think it was sort of a creeper or voyeur thing, but truthfully I was feeling more like someone who had given a wrapped gift to someone, and I wanted to see their reaction to receiving the gift. To be honest, I admit was feeling pretty good about myself and what I had done. I wasn’t expecting what was about to happen. First of all, it seemed like he wanted to conceal his gift from the girl he was with. Next, he unwrapped the roast beef sandwich and took a bite. Then he got up, walked over to the nearest trash can, and tossed it in.
He didn’t even offer it to his friend.
Some might react to what happened by disparaging the whole practice of giving to the poor: “See! It’s a waste of my hard-earned money. They just threw it away anyway.” True. That is what happened. Others might conclude that the couple wasn’t really hungry to begin with; that they were just panhandling for drug money. Not sure if that was the case, but admittedly, it wouldn’t have been much of a stretch to reach that conclusion with these two. Because of this experience, I might be tempted to not make the same effort to make this offer in the future.
But then I thought about the Lord’s Supper.
Throughout the Gospels, especially the first three Gospels, the disciples are clueless as to Jesus’ identity, mission, and kingdom. Like our experience at the surf shop, they miss the point of most of what Jesus has to say, preferring to hear something completely different. Several times in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus predicts his upcoming trial and death. Immediately following his pronouncements, the disciples get into arguments about who will be the greatest or who will have a seat closest to the throne in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus remains patient with them, repeating his words and making everything into focus as they travel toward Jerusalem, the place where Jesus will be tried and put to death.
Then, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus takes a loaf of bread, asks God’s blessing upon it, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples. One of these disciples will betray him. Another will deny him three times. Others will desert him when he is arrested. Jesus knows all this, and he’s already told them it’s going to happen. He knows they’re about to throw away the bread he’s about to offer them, but he gives it to them anyway.
So maybe it’s not about how my attempts at kindness and generosity are received; instead it’s about offering them freely, expecting nothing in return. I just read this morning that in God’s economy of abundance, we can give like this, expecting nothing in return, because there is plenty enough for all. So as a follower of Jesus, I’m not asked to evaluate the reception of my gift; I’m simply asked to give. And it is in giving–not in judging the recipient, or in refusing to give because the gift is refused–that I become more like Jesus.
Things didn’t go as planned in Santa Cruz, but I learned some important lessons. I’d like to share these lessons, especially one biggie, over the next few posts. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In this post, I want to share the premonitory episodes that took place on the first night in Santa Cruz. But even before I get to that, some back-story should be shared.
Santa Cruz wasn’t initially on the radar for Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh. I already had a Spring Break beach trip planned (initially for this year but postponed until 2016) to Daytona Beach, FL. Then my good friend Chris called to say that he had access to a cabin at Mission Springs, near Santa Cruz, and asked if I would like to do some tattoo research among the surfing crowd that gravitates there. He also mentioned that Echo and the Bunnymen, one of our favorite 80s bands, would be playing Santa Cruz in early August. We checked the dates and made it happen.
On the way in to the cabin, we stopped at a coffee shop in Scotts Valley. I noticed that they served vacuum-pot coffee. I asked the barista about it, but unfortunately they were too busy training some new staff to take the time necessary to make that particular type of coffee. I would have to wait one more day to experience what is supposed to produce the smoothest coffee on the planet. We bought some beans for the cabin and chatted with the barista, who was sporting a number of tattoos. When I told her that I liked her ink and asked if there might be a story, she shared that she had struggled with depression in her life (I also saw, but did not comment on what I assumed were cutting scars on her arms). She pointed out the tattoo on her wrist, which reminded her to STAY STRONG. At that moment I thought our conversation was a promising sign that Santa Cruz would indeed be a great place for ink-talk. Little did I know that this would be one–and definitely the most meaningful– of only a small number of tattoo-initiated conversations we’d have that week.
After we got settled in the cabin, we headed into downtown Santa Cruz for some dinner at Kianti’s. From their lovely outdoor seating, we were able to observe the constant stream of foot traffic through the downtown strip. It was impossible not to notice a burned-out young couple who looked like zombies. For no apparent reason, the woman looked terrified and the man looked completely defeated. When we saw them later, they looked slightly more relaxed but just as lost. We would see them again several times throughout the week.
Our waitress was professional and friendly. We learned that she was from Costa Rica and was in the USA studying at UC Santa Cruz. I said, “Oh, so you’re a slug”, referring to the UCSC mascot, the Banana Slug. She agreed, but asked us to keep that on the down-low; for some reason the locals aren’t all that appreciative of their local university. I asked why, and she surmised that it had to do with the impact UCSC students had on local apartment prices. I thought it a bit strange, especially since the school resides up the hill from the city of Santa Cruz, but as a fellow outsider, I took note of her experience.
Chris and I crossed the street to The Catalyst, where we would remain for the concert. An innocuous acoustic duo played a few opening numbers, after which we were ready for the Bunnymen. However, the Bunnymen weren’t quite ready for us, and their stage crew took quite some time setting up after the opening group and their equipment were cleared. We guessed that the group had not taken a sound-check prior to the show; all the instruments needed tuning and the amplifiers checking. We were excited to see and hear the guys we had promoted and listened to during our days in college radio–even though our colleges were on opposite coasts.
Down went the house lights, and Echo and the Bunnymen took the stage. Singer Ian McCulloch, wearing dark sunglasses, assumed a statuesque pose at center stage, both hands around the microphone which was held in a floor stand before him. This would be his position during every song they played. Guitarist Will Sergeant, the other of two original members present that evening, took his place to the far left with a red Fender Jaguar in his hands. The rest of the band consisted of a keyboardist, drummer, bassist, and a second guitarist. I took quite a few photos with my iPhone that night, the best of which is here on the left. We enjoyed the opening few numbers before we began to observe some strange things happening onstage.
First of all, the lighting was coming exclusively from the rear of the band, effectively placing them all into silhouette. Their faces remained in shadow, as you can see in this photo on the right. That was disappointing as I (as well as, I imagine, most people) had been looking forward to “seeing” the band perform. Even though we were relatively close to the stage, facial expressions were indistinguishable. McCulloch’s sunglasses remained in place for the entire performance, which added a certain absurd sense of irony, considering that all the lighting was coming from behind the band. The guitar technician had to hold a flashlight so that Sergeant could see what he was playing!
Between songs, McCulloch spoke to the crowd, but his words were indecipherable. I’m not sure if it was his accent, his state of insobriety, or a combination of the two, but other than a few f-bombs, we couldn’t make out anything. Then he would turn away from the audience, to a small table that contained a glass of milk, a second glass of brown liquid that we assumed was some form of hard liquor, a pack of cigarettes, and a lighter. At first he smoked between songs, then switched to keeping one lit as he sang. Milk, booze, and cigarettes. Probably not suggestions given to him by his vocal coach, but they were McCulloch’s stage staples.
The band didn’t interact much with one another, and even less with the audience. During two of their best-known songs, the whole band pulled back their volume so the audience could be heard singing on the chorus, but other than that, there was pretty much zero interaction. Chris and I talked about this after the show. At first we agreed that their stage presence was intense, but the best word Chris found to describe the experience was “impenetrable.” They seemed unhappy and/or bored to be there, which might have been explained by the small stage, the small venue, the lighting, the lack of a sound-check, jet-lag, or many other things. The audience was excited, but it seemed like the band was ready to head for bed.
I should add one correction to that last paragraph. Echo and the Bunnymen performed two encores after the show. One of them was my favorite selection from their library: Lips Like Sugar. At the end of the show, and at the end of each of these two encores, McCulloch threw cigarettes (unlit, thankfully) into the audience. Not sure why, but there were plenty of folks smoking outside the venue afterwards, and they were probably pleased with the gifts. I guess that was interaction, Bunnymen-style.
These experiences, all of which took place on our first evening in Santa Cruz, were a collective harbinger of the week to come. As I will write in the next entry or two, the Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh experience of Santa Cruz was intense, but in the end pretty much impenetrable. Just as the lights and sunglasses obscured these performers, we would find that many of our experiences, from surf shops to coffee shops, were more confusing and less engaging than we had hoped. Fortunately, there were lessons to be learned, which I will begin to share in my next post.
My daughter Sarah was my partner for our trip to Boston. She took lots of photographs, which I hope to get posted soon. The following is her “guest post” about her Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh experience in Boston.
Tattoos are a very interesting concept. They permanently ink your skin with a picture, words, or whatever someone has the desire to get. Some people get them because they think they are tough looking, or that they make them look cool. Other people get them because they want something that will be a constant reminder of a memory or a person. When I agreed to be my dad’s (amateur) photographer for the trip to Boston, I knew what he had in mind for the whole “tattoo stories” idea, but I didn’t know how much would actually happen. He had told me about how people would “open up” about the stories behind their tattoos.
I have a fondness for tattoos, just as my dad does, but in a different way. I want to get them, he likes hearing the stories. When we got on the train, we found a woman in the observation car sitting and reading a book. My dad had already started up a conversation with her when I walked in, and he had told her about his idea. She started to talk about people that she knew that got tattoos to commemorate family or friends that they had lost.
When we arrived in Boston, we went to the Seafarer’s Mission, which allowed for us to talk to some of the people that worked in and around the ships. It was there that we met Julia, who was a dockworker.. Julia probably had the most interesting tattoos that I have ever seen on someone. My personal favorites were the cats that she had tattooed on her hands. As we talked to her, we found out that most of her ink was dedicated to family members and friends, many of whom she had lost. She explained that she had lost a lot of people in her life, and tattoos were her way of remembering them. She had stories behind every one of her tattoos, some serious, and some rendering, “I went to a shop that didn’t do as great of a job on this idea that I had, so I had it covered up with a giant Aztec-like black bar. I told myself I would never get a tribal tattoo, but looks like I ended up with one.” Julia described tattoos not only as her way of commemorating people, but as an addiction. She loved getting tattoos, and that they were her way of expressing herself.
When we came back the next day, we talked to a guy named Kevin, who was another dockworker. Kevin’s storytelling was really the one that opened my eyes as to what my dad was talking about. All we did was ask him about his tattoo on his forearm, and he opened up and told us all about the story of his mother’s passing. He told us about the struggles that not only she went through in her battle with cancer, but also his personal struggles during and following her death. It was amazing that someone that we had never talked to before would be so open about sharing that kind of personal information, simply because we asked about his tattoo. Before then, I had never really witnessed what my dad was talking about when he introduced the idea of people opening up and sharing when asked about their tattoos.
It’s amazing how much a pattern of ink can mean to a person.
The Hebrew professor spoke the phrase “eved elohim” to the class, explaining that it means “servant of God”. One of his students, a rather passionate and impulsive young man, abruptly stood up from his seat, turned his back to the rest of the class, whipped off his shirt, and shouted, “That’s what I’ve got on my back!” Sure enough, there it was, in black and teal Hebrew lettering, tattooed onto his skin.
Have you seen any tattoos inked in a different language? Chinese is popular, as its characters are intrinsically artistic. I’ve also seen tattoos in Greek and like the one above, in Hebrew. My wife, who has no tattoos, has recently mused that perhaps Gaelic would be a nice language for a tattoo. A language other than one’s own adds a sense of mystery to a tattoo. “What does that say?” “What language is that?” “What does it mean?” Ironically, rather than keeping a secret, foreign language tattoos invite curiosity. I remembered hearing in another of my seminary classes that the biblical concept of mystery was similar, in that it is not something that is intended to hide, but something that is to be revealed.
For years, the unofficial gatekeeper at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago was Dr. Klyne Snodgrass. Actually, it was his class, entitled “Interpreting the New Testament I”, that separated the wheat from the chaff among first-year students. Dr. Snodgrass is a gentle, hospitable Tennessean who, along with his wife Phyllis, invites students into his home each semester for a time of food and fellowship. But when it comes to the Scriptures, students in his classes are expected to fully engage and interact with the assigned material – no excuses. I found it amazing that not only could Klyne quote, complete with chapter and verse, just about any passage in the Bible, but he could also tell you, off the top of his head, what various interpreters and commentators had to say about that passage.
So when it came to discovering what the New Testament has to say about “mystery”, I sought out Dr. Snodgrass. He concurred with me that the term is usually connected to God’s revelation, not some sort of desire God has to keep things hidden from God’s creatures. He also pointed me in the direction of two books: one dense and erudite, the other thin and–well, I have to admit I don’t remember the other adjective. I also promptly forgot the title and author of the thicker volume. But I did jot down the second one, and began a search for Raymond Brown’s The Semitic Background of the Term “Mystery” in the New Testament. Amazon.com had it, but so did the Creighton University Library. I asked my wife, who works at Creighton, to pick it up for me. Apparently the last time this popular book had been checked out was in May, 1985! I believe Brown’s little book gives us some interesting conversation pieces to share when talking to someone who has a mysterious tattoo – one that incites curiosity and invites questions.
In the first section of the book, Brown deals with several words from the Old Testament and other Semitic texts that can be translated “mystery”. One of these words, he explains, “Besides referring to an assembly in heaven (or on earth), conveys the notion of intimate friendship” (5). Later, when discussing Jesus’ parables, Brown notes that
“…even to outsiders the mystery is at least given; and the parables which cloak it are not meaningless narration. The parable gives some knowledge of the kingdom of God without completely unveiling it. The complete unveiling will come not so much by way of added revelation, as of added perception gained through faith, so that hearers may comprehend what they have already heard” (36).
Jesus reveals the mysteries, contained in many of his parables, directly to his disciples when they gather in more secluded, more intimate places. One might say that God desires an intimate relationship in which to reveal God’s mysteries to us. Mystery is linked with intimacy. Perhaps then in a similar manner, asking another about the mystery contained in their tattoo can lead to some surprisingly intimate revelations about the meaning in their ink and their life.
It is not surprising that most of Brown’s book deals with the Apostle Paul’s use of the word “mystery”. Paul’s letters to the various churches contain most of its appearances in the New Testament. Brown suggests that “…Paul’s favorite use of mysterion [is] the divine economy of redemption” (50), and “…for Paul, Christ’s life and role in the salvation of man [sic] are the revelation of God’s mysterious plan hidden from ages past” (51). For Paul, “the gospel announces the mystery, which is salvation for all in Christ” (64).
When we put these two concepts together, one might say that God desires an intimate relationship with us in which he can reveal to us the way of salvation, which is Jesus Christ. Following Christ, submitting to Jesus’ lordship and committing to his kingdom are the way of salvation. Because God’s kingdom of justice, reconciliation, beauty, and wholeness is not readily seen in our world, it remains for some a mystery yet to be revealed. The task of the believer, then, is to develop intimate relationships in which we can be witnesses of the mystery being unveiled: “Yes, I can see signs of God’s kingdom–and you can too.”
I’ve discovered that simply saying “I like your ink – is there a story?” can lead to deep, surprisingly intimate conversations with people you may not even know before you asked the question. If their tattoo contains some sort of mysterious element, ask if they are willing to share that with you. Another simple phrase here: “That looks cool. Can you tell me what it means?” Let your curiosity lead you, and see what God, through the Holy Spirit, reveals to you and your new friend.
All citations from Brown, Raymond E. The Semitic Background of the Term “Mystery” in the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1968.
NOTE: I’ve added a new book (published in 2014) to my Kindle, called Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery. It’s written by G. K. Beale and Benjamin L. Gladd. I’ll let you know about it soon.