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.

New England Seafarers Mission

IMG_1753The New England Seafarers Mission is located right on Boston Harbor at the EDIC Pier, where cruise ships are docked for loading and unloading. The pier alternates between a lull of anticipation and bustling busyness. Shortly after 9:00am, returningIMG_1750 passengers exit the ships after spending a week to the north, in beautiful Canadian destinations, or to the south, in the warmth of Bermuda. Receiving these sea-legged travelers are the longshoremen, who haul their luggage to the taxis and buses prepared to take them across the harbor to Logan Airport, downtown to their hotels, or back to their hometowns.

The last of the buses and taxis has barely left the pier area before a new wave of vehicles arrives with those who are ready to be loaded aboard the ship for its next journey to one of these destinations. The process is reversed, but the actors are the same: bus/taxi drivers, longshoremen, and passengers.

IMG_1760The mission is located at one end of the pier, which is also the location of an elevator that is used to transport handicapped and/or special needs persons aboard ship. As this elevator serves as a portal to international destinations, a MassPort officer and a cruise employee are on hand to check passports and tickets before allowing them to depart. The officer agreed when I suggested that his job was better than the jobs of those serving across the harbor at Logan Airport: these people are all happy to be returning from a great vacation or preparing to embark on one.

Meanwhile, the employees on the cruise ships have precious little time to accomplish important tasks. On this particular Friday, the  workers–who are of a wide variety of ethnicities and nationalities–have gotten paid.  That means their first priority is to send money to their families back home. Second, they may need to purchase a few items to bring back to their quarters on the ship for their next hardworking journey. Third, these international employees find that purchasing items online in the United States is sometimes cheaper than their home countries. To take advantage of these savings, they need a mailbox service for receiving these packages, which will then be loaded into their quarters.  Finally, they need a spot with WiFi to catch up on email and social media.IMG_1604

In addition to  spiritual counseling, the New England Seafarers Mission provides for these needs. There are three levels to the mission: level one is a convenience store that stocks, among other things, many international snacks. My daughter Sarah was amused by the banana-flavored marshmallow pies. Level two houses  MoneyGram and postal services, and level three is the internet cafe as well as the counseling office. When I described this multilayered mission to the on-duty MassPort officer, he was impressed and said “It’s about time someone did that: find out what people need!”

For the past 17 years, Steve Cushing has served as the chaplain of the New England Seafarers mission. For about the past 15, NESM has used the model described above. Steve and I were part of a Leadership Cohort, sponsored by a Lilly Grant and facilitated by several pastors in the Evangelical Covenant Church. When I told Steve about Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh, he told me that tattoos were one of the best ways he’s found to open communication with young international seafarers. I asked if I might come out for a visit, and he enthusiastically agreed. Sarah and I visited in early June, and I’ll be posting some of our discoveries, right here, in the near future.

Amtrak: Omaha to Boston

IMG_1801By the time we boarded the California Zephyr at Omaha, some of the passengers had already been traveling for two days and two nights. Omaha to Chicago would be the final leg, and the train was running late (I’ve been told by an industry insider that passenger trains still take precedence over freight trains IF (and that’s a big IF) the former is on-time. If not, the freight can’t wait). What I’ve often found on Amtrak, as opposed to other forms of travel, is that people remain civil–even polite–despite delays. This politeness, unfortunately, doesn’t always mean good hygiene. After a couple of days without a shower, some folks could really use one.

In general, people on trains are much more open to conversation than they would be elsewhere. To be sure, there are plenty of folk who are tethered to computers, tablets, and phones. But the dining car is an example of how train travel is different. They seat you with people–people whom you’ve never met before! For some this may be a nightmare, but I found it fascinating to hear people from vastly diverse demographics getting to know one another. Sharing more than just the weather–sharing themselves.

In the observation car, I sat next to a woman from Wheaton, Illinois (When I mentioned that Wheaton is home to some of the best-roasted coffee on the planet, we discovered that we both know Pete Leonard, the entrepreneurial artisan roastmaster at I Have a Bean. Her children had participated in some of the junior high activities Pete and his wife led at their church. Small world!). She asked where and why I was traveling, and I told her a little bit about Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh.

Part of my story with I&S:WMF involves a conscious choice to try to meet people with an attitude of curiosity rather than judgment. The woman in the observation car responded with a great example of each: on the one hand, she believes that people who are on economic assistance programs should not be getting tattoos. Together, we noted that this is a judgmental statement; a sweeping, abstract comment about a large group of people. While the judgment may or not be fair or correct, it’s a statement that is unconnected to a face and/or a story. Secondly, she shared about someone she knew who chose to have a phoenix tattoo to represent the life she was leading – a life filled with recovery from difficult circumstances. Here was an example of a real person with a real story, represented by a tattoo that symbolized the real life she was living.

While we were still talking, an older gentleman and his wife sat next to us. Noting the tattoo on his arm, I said, “That looks like it’s been there for awhile.” He agreed, and then shared that he had served in all four branches of the military, including some time in the Korean War. He showed me several other tattoos, which represented these different branches of service, along with his name.

Judgment doesn’t get us to the story, but curiosity opens the door to hear who the other person truly is. Judgments categorize, but curiosity can catalyze a conversation that goes deeper than skin. “I like your ink – is there a story?”


Welcome to Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh.

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.