Thursday, August 4, 2016

Theological Reflections From a Tattoo Parlor...

So, this isn't your typical preacher type thing...but I'm not a typical preacher type.

My oldest daughter, Jen, has been asking for a tattoo since she was 15.  She is now 20.  I told her all those years ago that when she decided what she really wanted, and could tell me why she really wanted it...and after she turned 18...I'd take her to get her first ink.  I also told her that I'd get another one when she did.  That would make 4 for me.

Jen was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was 12, so this was something that she wanted, and a part of her life that she might actually have a little control over.  Some parents, and especially some preacher dads, might have thrown a fit over it, but it was fine with me.

Yesterday, I went to the shop where I had my other three done to set up an appointment.  Hank, the artist, asked me if we wanted to just do them last night, so I went home, got Jen, and we came back to get inked.

While we were waiting for him to finish with the client before us, I was people watching.  It's one of my favorite things to do.  I love to see how folks interact with each other in different settings, and since so many church folks have lived relatively sheltered lives (in some cases) it's a way for me to bring the rest of the world into my homiletics.

The tattoo parlor crowd isn't your typical Sunday morning crowd.  And if you lead a church, I encourage you to just visit a parlor and get to know some of the folks.  It's kind of eye opening.  Here's why...

First, the racial diversity when we got there was split just about 50/50.  Today, especially, anywhere you can find that kind of diversity and everyone is getting along, spend some time in that place.  That by itself was pretty cool.

Next, there were some folks who came in who, you could tell, struggled with the necessities of life.  Some folks might judge them for "wasting" money on ink when there were so many other things that they might need the money for worse.  In this case, though, the ink was a cover up from a bad decision earlier in life.  That reminded me to be a little slower to judge...or not judge at all.

After that I noticed a couple of young guys come in on motorcycles.  I know what you're thinking....and yes, they were on bikes...and yes, their language was more than just a little colorful...and yes, they were inked...and one of them even had a small bottle of cinnamon whiskey on him...but when they walked in, everyone in that place knew them and welcomed them in like family.  For them, that was a place where they knew they fit in, and they belonged.  That made me wonder how many churches would have given them the same kind of welcome.

Then there was Pat.  Pat looked like anyone's grandma, but in that little shop, she was treated like family.  You could tell she didn't have much.  She had lost her husband a few years ago and gotten a tattoo as a memorial.  This year she came back to get some work added to it.  Watching Hank interact with Pat while he was working and she was just standing there talking, made me wish I could talk to my Grandma again.  You wouldn't expect to see your Grandma in a tattoo parlor, but there she was, and she was one of them.  It was beautiful. 
Then, came a young woman from the back of the parlor.  I'd never met her before.  I'd never seen her before.  She came out to offer our artist something to eat for supper.  If you're at all familiar with the life of a tattoo artist, a regular schedule is not something they enjoy very often.  He stopped for a minute and fixed a sandwich.  Then...get this...she looked at us, two people she'd never seen before, and said, "Here, fix a sandwich.  You may be here a while."  She didn't offer just once, but three times, and was almost insistent that we fix a sandwich from the BBQ they had bought earlier in the day.  Did I mention that we had never met?  It made me stop and think about what hospitality really looks like, and what it means to really welcome the stranger.

Finally, it was our turn to get in the chair.  Jen was nervous and wanted me to go first so she could watch.  I sat down.  Hank set the template on my foot and got ready to start outlining my Jolly Roger.  The two guys on the bikes, from earlier, came back in and talked to me just like they'd known me all of their lives.  One of them joked about my pink T-shirt, and I joked back about it taking a real man to pull off that look.  I'd never seen either of them and we were cutting up and laughing like we had gone to school together.  They wanted to see my tattoo when Hank was finished with it.  An hour and half later, I was done, and it was Jen's turn.

She sat down in the chair, scared to death.  As bad as mine hurt, I didn't flinch or make any noise because I knew she was watching and was already nervous.  Hank set her template, they got it situated where she wanted it, and he went to work.  Jay, the other artist in the shop, came up from the back and he and I talked with Jen to keep her distracted.  Jay spent a half hour just standing there talking to us while she got her first tattoo.  That made me wonder about the other things he might have needed to be doing for that half hour, but instead, he stood there with us.  That was pretty cool.

Now for the theological reflection part.

A T-shirt covers my first three tattoos.  If I have on a shirt, you'd never know I had any ink.  That was intentional because of what I do for a living.  I know that some church folk are not crazy about their preacher having tattoos, so it's not something I push into others' faces.  When we walked in, we walked into a world that some folks never see, and probably wouldn't know how to handle if they did.  There is this stigma that, while not as prevalent now as in years past, is still attached to those with tattoos, those who are tattoo artists, and tattoo parlors.  Let's just be honest...for some, there is still this image of a tattoo parlor as some back alley underground, full of people who some see as less than, and there's nothing but drug sales and drinking going on.

In some places, that may be true.  But it's also true in some schools, grocery stores, just about any other business setting you can think of, and (gulp) the homes of some church folk.  What I saw last night, was the exact kind of welcome we read about in the gospels.  Jesus ruined his reputation with church folk by hanging out with folks they snubbed their noses at.  He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, and if you've read any of the gospels, he never denied it.  Not once.  He only told stories to defend his actions.

"Let's say a shepherd has 100 sheep, just hypothetically, and he loses one.  He will leave the 99 and go look for the one, and when he finds it, he throws this huge party because he's so happy that one sheep isn't lost anymore."

"Let's say a woman has 10 coins...just hypothetically...and she loses one.  She'll stay up all night, turning the house upside down until she finds it.  When she finds it, she calls everyone she knows, invites them over, and throws this huge party because she found the one coin."

"Let's say a dad has two boys.  One of them tells him, 'Dad, I wish you were dead.  Let me have my inheritance now.'"  Then he goes off and blows it on alcohol and hookers.  When he realizes how broke he is, and that he can't even buy lunch, he decides to go back home and beg his dad to let him come back.  But...and check this out...before he even gets close to the house, his dad sees him, way down the road, and literally runs to him, throws his arms around his neck and tells somebody to start the party because his boy was gone and is back home."  

Here's the deal.  I'm a 17 year veteran of the ministry as a career.  I'm an Elder in Full Connection in the United Methodist Church.  I've served 11 churches over 6 appointments.  Last night I was treated better, and made to feel more welcome, than in some of the churches I've served.  It's just the truth.  Three of the people in that place last night, only one of which I knew his first name before I got there, welcomed us in and made us feel like we were family.  When we left, sometime after midnight, they told us, "It was cool to hang out with y'all."  Wow. 

Why in God's name can we not do that in ALL of our churches?  Why do we have to judge folks because of what they wear?  Who said a tattoo makes you a bad person? Where does it say, in any of Jesus' teachings, to build a little brick building, stack it with pews and all things religious, then decide who can come in and who can't?  I haven't found it yet.  It may be there, but I haven't seen it yet.

Just last week I was told, "You wouldn't last 30 minutes as our pastor with those tattoos."  Really?  That's what we've turned the most amazing story in the history of the world into?  In so many places, we've taken the greatest story ever told and turned into our personal possession, leaving no room for anyone who doesn't look like, think like, act like, or live like us.  I just think we've missed the point.

WWJD?  What would Jesus do?  I can't speak for Jesus, but given what I've read in the Gospels, I'm thinking that Jesus would get off of his padded pew, take off his suit and tie, put on some street clothes, and go hang out at a tattoo parlor.  I think he'd watch folks when they came in, find a way to connect, start up a conversation, and just be.  I think he'd offer them a BBQ sandwich, whether he knew their name or not.  I think he'd just stand there and talk to folks.  He'd probably talk about his favorite band.  He might even go back and get a tattoo, who knows?

WWJD?  What wouldn't Jesus do? I can't speak for Jesus, but given what I've read in the Gospels, I'm thinking that Jesus wouldn't make anyone who came through the doors of that tattoo parlor feel less than. I don't think he'd flinch much when they dropped the F bomb.  I'm not sure he would have taken the little bottle of cinnamon whiskey and told the guy that he ought not do that.  I'm not sure he'd judge them.  And I doubt very seriously that he'd look down his nose at them.

Oh, one more thing that I think he would do.  I think, that when he made a connection with someone in a tattoo parlor, and who maybe for the first time in their lives felt like they were someone of sacred worth, he'd tell someone else to go and get the party started because this one who was lost has been found.

My prayer is that anyone who walks through any church door anywhere in the world, is made to feel as welcome as we were last night in a tattoo parlor.  That's my prayer.