If all goes well – and by going well, I mean, if I don’t chicken out last minute – I will emerge from this coming weekend with a tattoo. It will be my first tattoo and I am getting it on my chest. The artist estimated about 3 hours for it. For my first tattoo. 3 hours.
Yes. I am turning 40 in just a little over a week, and I’m happy to report that although I have considered getting a tattoo at other times in my life, this is the first time that I really feel like this tattoo is something that is spiritually important to me. For the first time, I know exactly what I want and I have no doubt that I will always want it on me.
I guess what I’m saying is, for the first time, I feel like I know myself well enough to be excited about getting a tattoo.
The permanency of tattoos has always been what’s scared me, not necessarily the pain (although that is, at the current hour, also on my mind.) I didn’t like the idea of having something on me that I couldn’t change, couldn’t remove (with any ease, at least) and that might not, well… suit me in 5 or 10 or 30 years. I am not, by nature, someone who “settles” easily with anything, and feeling “trapped” or put in a box in any way is pretty much my pathological fear in life. So, tattoos have always presented that challenge.
But all this thinking and preparing myself for the 3 hours of tattooing that will take place on my body this weekend has got me thinking, too, about one of those oft-repeated, love-it-or-hate-it core theological statements of Christianity: Jesus takes away our sin.
Now, I am a minister in a highly progressive context where we tend to opt not to wrestle with these things but instead just to brush them off or ignore them. Which is better, I think, than other things that could be done with difficult theological ideas – I mean, I’m not all that interested in versions of Christianity that are obsessed with “accepting Jesus” in order to “be cleansed of sin” so that one can “get into heaven.”
No, my Christianity is much more focused on the here and now, and the tension of trying to live into the life that Jesus taught and shared even while we are complicit in so much that stands against everything Jesus stood for.
So this is the way I’ve been working with that phrase as of late, that Jesus takes away our sin. Clearly, Jesus does not in any way stop us from, well, sinning. Like, not at all. We all do messed up shit everyday, and sometimes just by virtue of our existence (I’m remembering a conversation I had with a colleague today who tried to go zero-waste for Lent one year. “I’m a one-woman trash machine!” she said. There are systems of sin in our world that we can resist, but very few we can totally extricate ourselves from.)
So what does it mean that Jesus takes away our sin?
What I’m thinking about today might sound paltry or “of course.” But I’m thinking about the damage I do not only to people and other living things around me throughout the course of my day, but also the damage I do to myself.
I’m thinking about how every time I spray a cockroach with toxic chemicals in my kitchen (hey, it’s NYC) I’m opting to dull myself just a little bit more to the suffering of another being and to the responsibility I have for not putting toxic chemicals into the world. That’s damage.
I’m thinking about how every time I lack the courage to increase our charitable giving, I’m forming myself just a little bit more into someone who lives in fear and mistrust. That’s damage.
I’m thinking about every time I’ve looked away from a person on the street asking for money, and how I’m stifling my own empathy just a bit more each time and my ability to have compassion on those who suffer. That’s damage.
It’s like being marked with a tattoo, just a little dot, over and over again, by my own hand. And, of course, leaving a little tattoo dot on someone else, as well. This is life, this is what we do to one another, this is what we do to ourselves.
I am not necessarily interested in living forever or being freed from the consequences of these actions. But if one of the messages of the resurrection is that those little dots, no matter how many we have on our bodies, can never define us? Or that no matter how damaged we are from what Christians call “sin” in the world, so damaged that maybe we don’t even feel alive anymore, there is always the promise of new life, hope, connection, healing… no matter what?
I’m there for that. It’s a huge thing to have faith in. How many people do we all know that we feel hopeless about? How many times have we lost faith in our own abilities to bring love and light into the world?
The promise of the resurrection, the promise of “Jesus takes away our sin,” is that Jesus is like a tattoo remover/retoucher for the spirit. Little by little, dot by dot… the ways we mark ourselves and mark others around us can either be taken away or, more commonly, retouched and redone so that those disparate little marks become a thing of beauty we wear inwardly.
Can I have faith in that? Can I trust it? It’s a big ask. If we believe it then that means we have to really believe the world can change, that the world is worth hoping for, that other people are worth hoping for. And hope can hurt.
But I’m here for it.