Guest Post: Daytona

“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 lineIMG_2134 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.

Bradley Bergfalk
Litchfield, CT

Brad Bergfalk is a Covenant Pastor and presently serves as the pastor of First Congregational Church of Litchfield in Litchfield, CT.

Santa Cruz 2: Different Languages

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.

“Mystery” in the New Testament

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.

Mystery: Definitions 2 and 3

Laying in my bed, I tried to stay awake and listen to Radio Mystery Theater and its creepy host, the late E. G. Marshall. Living my middle school and high school years in Minnesota, the show aired at 9:00pm on WCCO. According to their website,

CBS Radio Mystery Theater was meant to appeal to an audience that remembered when old time radio drama was a popular form of family entertainment. Riding on the wave of nostalgia fever, the radio show attracted many younger listeners who would stay up late, hidden under their covers to hear the program on their bedroom radio (and many of them were not able to go to sleep after listening to the frightening program!)

Radio drama was just one of the ways I fed my love of mysteries. I still enjoy mystery novels, television shows (especially the British ones) and movies. For me, mystery means trying to stay one step ahead of the plot, only to delightfully find myself two steps behind. My brain  always tries to solve the mystery, to understand the world, to consume information about how things work and how things happen in the world.

However, this is not the only definition of mystery. According to the  dictionary on my iMac, the word “mystery” has at least four  possible definitions:

  1. something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain;
  2. a novel, play, or movie dealing with a puzzling crime, especially a murder;
  3. the secret rites of Greek and Roman pagan religion, or of any ancient or tribal religion, to which only initiates are admitted;
  4. a religious belief based on divine revelation, especially one regarded as beyond human understanding.

A chief desire that  I have for Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh is to help readers make connections between the art that we apply to our bodies and the Spirit that inhabits them. One of the ways that we can do this is through the idea of mystery. While I began this post talking about mystery as defined by #2 in the list above, it is the other three definitions that apply more directly to body art and its connections to spirituality. I plan to present several blog posts that deal with these other aspects of mystery.

Let’s take a look at definition #3: mystery as a sacred rite that belongs to a particular religious sect. One might argue, in the case of Judaism (and early Christianity), that circumcision is a body art/marking that could match this definition of  mystery. It probably also fits into mystery definitions 1 and 4, as one may be hard-pressed to explain its practice to others.

Tattoos have a long history of use as part of religious rites, and can mark the bearers as belonging to a particular group or sect. John A. Rush notes that “The Greeks and Romans used tattooing to indicate status or clan membership (slave, freeman, political affiliation, etc.) and for religious/mystical/spiritual reasons (ancestor worship, life and death rituals, curing procedures).” (Rush, John A. Spiritual Tattoo. Berkeley: Frof, Ltd., 2005.) A rather innocuous way that this takes place is with friends who get the same tattoo, perhaps on the same location of their bodies, to signify a bond they have with one another. On the malevolent side of the spectrum, gang members often bear tattooed gang symbols to “permanently” display  loyalty to the gang. These symbols, both those shared by friends and those shared by gang members, can have mysterious connotations known only to those on the inside of the group. The irony of an outside marking, the meaning of which is known only by insiders, will eventually lead us to our other posts dealing with “mystery”. For now, I suggest that these tattoos are, like most tattoos, an invitation for us to enter into a conversation with their bearers.

Our curiosity about others’ tattoos, which leads us to say, “I like your ink – is there a story?”, might lead us to someone whose story includes a belief that they have been permanently, even religiously marked in a negative manner. They may believe they are beyond God’s help, that their life and behavior has cast them away from God’s care. Perhaps their mystery, embedded in their tattoo, points to their despair or their longing. This is where we might make a connection to the points that Samuel Kee makes about the permanence of the tattoos God has artistically rendered onto the skin of our souls.

In his book, Soul Tattoo,  Kee imaginatively suggests that God has given us four permanent, indelible “tattoos”, each of which helps to mark our identity. (Kee, Samuel. Soul Tattoo. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2014.) The following tattoos represent God’s never-changing words to each of us:

  1. “You are mine”
  2. “I will be with you”
  3. “I love you”
  4. “I created you for my glory”

These are the words that many are longing to hear, and Kee tells us that they are already tattooed onto our souls. Using these images, Kee gently introduces readers to a God who is concerned for them, and who can transform them regardless of their past. I’m happy to recommend Soul Tattoo as an “Introduction to Christianity for the Inked.”

Don’t touch that dial! More on mystery in future posts.