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.

Stained Glass

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.

In more snarky moments, I’ve thought that it might be fun to get “Leviticus 19:28” tattooed to my arm. But others have already taken that angle.

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.

OLGH-Holy-Spirit-Stained-Glass-001-cropLet’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?”

All Saints Day

“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.FullSizeRender

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.

IMG_2040One 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.

FullSizeRenderThree 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 reasoIMG_1759n, 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.