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My Church's Lenten Challenge: Get a Tattoo

Mar 13 2012
Sometimes in order to believe something, we need to bear it on our bodies.

"There are some things one can only believe singing," author Lauren Winner told our small writing group. We were gathered in a large, sunny room at Laity Lodge, perched above the prettiest spot on the Rio Frio River in the Texas Hill Country.

As a worship leader, I found that the idea took root with me as I turned the phrase over in my mind. Winner moved on to the next matter, work-shopping another essay, but I was struck.

The phrase came to me again last month when my friend, artist Scott Erickson, told me about his Lenten-theme project for the congregation we serve, Ecclesia Church in Houston. He had designed a series of 10 tattoos representing the 14 traditional Stations of the Cross, and was asking volunteers to tattoo them to their bodies, as a way of observing the 40 days leading up to Good Friday.

Ecclesia is not a typical church: Not only do we have an "artist-in-residence," the aforementioned Scott Erickson, but about half the congregation is already tattooed, says pastor Chris Seay. This year, instead of the annual Lenten art show, the inked congregants would become the Stations of the Cross, and stand in the gallery spaces where paintings or photographs would normally appear.

I didn't have a tattoo when I joined Ecclesia's staff. I grew up in a Jewish home, albeit a nonreligious one, and my brother often reminded me that if I had a tattoo, I couldn't be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I wasn't very Jewish in life, so I'm not sure what made me think I would suddenly become Jewish in death, but nonetheless I shuddered every time we drove past Mt. Hebron Cemetery in Queens. New York's largest Jewish cemetery, it's an endless sea of headstones, jutting out of the landscape like broken teeth. I don't know if my brother was accurate or if he was simply trying to prevent me from, say, inking the name of my favorite band (Jane's Addiction) or boyfriend (Ben) on my body, but whatever his reasoning, it worked.

Not until I became a Christian in my mid-20s did I reconsider a tattoo. I learned that many Christians see the command of Leviticus 19:28 ("do not put tattoo marks on yourselves") in light of Christ's new covenant with the church, and put the forbidding of tattoos in the same category as keeping a kosher diet or stoning adulterers. Even still, I'd been a Christian for a decade before I finally got one. On Fat Tuesday of 2011, I got a tiny tattoo of three small words taken from my favorite poem: the thing itself. The tattoo reminds me what I came to this faith-life for: not for social acceptance or theology, not for ritual or small groups or women's retreats or a place to play my music, but for God, and God alone—for God himself.

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My Church's Lenten Challenge: Get a Tattoo