Thursday, May 15, 2014

Day 859: The Tattooed Teacher

Here's a bow created by one of my students. Thank you, Lesly!
 Before I begin, I’d like to preface this post by explaining what this set of words in front of you is not.

This is not a commercial for tattoos, it is far from an attempt to inspire you to ink up and I’m not trying to convince anyone that what I have done (or paid others to do) to my body is right or wrong.

The post (and the thread of conversation to follow) related to the permanent (as relative a term as that is for anything earthly) markings found on my body that I’m beginning today is meant more as a personal reflection, containing my own rationale so as a few friends have recently asked me about them. Each of my 20+ pieces took months – sometimes years to think through – and so I’ve taken some time to think through my responses to the general inquiries, the casual remarks, and the critical looks/jeers I often encounter. This post is not meant to address any of these sorts of comments. It is meant for the sincere listener, the curious companion who doesn’t have the time to spare to listen to my story, but may have time to read it at their convenience.

Sometime between my third and fourth year of teaching I picked up the habit of reading biographies of Christian missionaries. I stumbled upon the diaries of Jim Elliot, a man who was killed by the people he believed he was supposed to serve. One reoccurring theme in his journaling was the premise that, as Christians, it is our duty to study the scriptures for ourselves and cement our own convictions based on our personal relationship to God and His word. One Bible reference that stuck with me was “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not be ashamed rightly dividing the word of truth.” - II Timothy 2:15. Too often, sadly, we live based on borrowed convictions, belief systems and practices that hinge on traditions, rituals, or practices that someone else has lived and instead of “dividing the word,” our opinions end up creating division among friends and family members alike. Instead of being ourselves a “workman” and studying a matter for ourselves, we rely on someone else to do the labor for us and if we like what we hear, we’ll hitch our wagon to their opinions. Worse yet, sometimes, we’ll even rely on someone else’s convictions regardless of whether or not they actually did the work of studying a matter.

I don’t know what it is about tattooing itself that fascinates me. Maybe it’s the idea that out of a series of painful moments something creative and beautifully artistic can be born. Perhaps it’s the use of imagery to define parts of who I am in ways that words cannot. Maybe it was the anchor I saw on Shipwreck when I was a kid.

Yo, Joe! Shipwreck was one of my favorite characters on G.I.Joe

When I first realized that I did want to go through with the process of being tattooed I started to become very sensitive to the tattoos on others, and what others said about tattoos. Ever notice that when you get a craving for something to drink you can’t help but see everyone around you guzzling on their own glass, cup, bottle or can? I had this insatiable thirst for figuring out as much as I could about the art, where it originated, how it evolved into what it is today and I became very familiar with passages in Scripture related to tattoos.

Almost immediately into my research I came across the one verse that concerns many people with regard to tattooing found in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. "You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD." Leviticus 19:28 NASV Following the conviction to study out the matter on my own, I looked for answers for the following questions: Why is this mentioned as part of Old Testament law? Who was this scripture originally intended for? Does this prohibition apply to me? I came across some interesting things. Here was one of the more compelling arguments:

In this passage God is speaking to his covenant people Israel. He is specifically telling them to stay far from the religious practices of the surrounding people groups. The prohibited religious practices in these verses include eating bloody meat, fortune telling, certain haircuts related to the priests of false cults, cutting or marking the body for dead relatives, cultic prostitution and consulting psychics. All these practices would lead God's beloved people away from Him and toward false gods that were not Gods at all. In the midst of this context we find the word translated “tattoo marks” in verse 28. It is important to note here that the context of this passage is not one of body d├ęcor but one of marking one's self in connection with cultic religious worship. Again, the prohibition against tattooing was to keep the Israelites from being involved or affiliated with cultic worship practices.

The tattoo of today is much different that it was for those who originally received the Pentateuch. Today, tattooing is a decorative means of self expression and personal ornamentation. In our current culture people modify their appearance for beauty in many ways. Clothing, makeup, plastic surgery, hair-cutting and coloring, weight loss, body-building, and ear-piercing are some examples of these modifications that are widely found acceptable and common. Some of these practices have a history in ancient ritual and false religion, but in the present day do not denote any connection to evil or false faith.

I see tattooing as a way to document my personal journey. I didn't intend on ending up with a particular number of tattoos. For me, each piece has served as a way of closing a chapter of my life while presenting the world with a different characteristic of my life. Ironically, one piece that many will never get to see in person, conveys the strongest conviction I have - my personal relationship with God.

Thank you for taking the time to read this far. I won't take any more of your time elaborating on all of my pieces here, but I do want to share something about my back piece because of what it illustrates and I invite you to continue the conversation with me privately whenever you wish. Pictured below, Matthew 10:24 in american traditional form. It's a sword (God's Word) piercing through our heart that also has the power to destroy the enemy (the Serpent). The message here is being delivered by the Prince of Peace (the Dove) who wants to reconcile us to God. The text came from Christ words in the Gospel of Matthew: "Think not that I come to send peace on earth. I came not to send peace, but a sword."

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