I was originally going to title this post, ‘A Tattoo, A Lesbian, And Our Awkward Situation,’ but it sounded a bit too much like click-bait. However that is where this story begins.
‘It Is Well With My Soul.’ This was the design I’d chosen to print on my skin.
Not long after my 40th birthday, I decided to do something about my long-held desire to get a tattoo (we can discuss the wisdom of that on another occasion). I had already settled on the design and placement; just needed the mid-life impetus to push me over the line. I did my research on local artists, browsed their styles and reputation, then scheduled an appointment to discuss my idea. Probably a decade earlier I’d purchased an original ink print of a three-masted ship labouring in a storm; dark clouds above and wild seas below frame the bow as she ploughs her way toward a distant glimmer of light. Inscribed on a flowing banner are the well-loved words, ‘It Is Well With My Soul.’ This was the design I’d chosen to print on my skin.
I sat for 30 minutes with a pleasant girl in her early thirties while she looked over the print I’d brought with me; discussed a few design changes that would work better as a tattoo, and then explained the process she’d follow, the time it would take, and when she would be available. I left that meeting with an appointment and an embarrassing amount of childish excitement.
Three weeks later I was back at the studio. I’d blocked out the day, was well hydrated, and settled in for the four hours I’d been told I should allow for the work to be completed. There I was, reclined on a comfortable chair while a stranger worked on my upper arm; just she and I in the room. Small-talk petered out after about 15 minutes, then there was about 10 minutes of silence. Then finally the question came: “So, tell me about your design. Why is it significant to you?”
So I told her the story of Horatio Spafford, author of the well-known hymn, “It is well with my soul.” I shared some of my own story of depression; some of my journey in parenting children with special needs, and told her of my hope in a reality that exists beyond sight, of the love of Jesus, and the surety of my soul’s security in the grace of a Saviour. My new friend listened without interruption, and then sat quietly.
The First Christian.
Eventually she said, “I think you’re the first Christian I’ve ever met.”
Now it was my turn to sit quietly. “Are you sure?” I replied, “You’ve never met a Christian before?”
She was thoughtful as she answered, “I mean, I guess I could have, but if I did, I didn’t know it. You are the first person who I know calls themselves a Christian and has made it clear what you believe.”
I didn’t push the conversation much further. We both sat in comfortable silence as she worked, slowly outlining the rolling clouds and the bolts of lightning that now mark my shoulder. Finally she paused, wiped away a droplet of blood and said, “I’m in the middle of a messy divorce.”
“That must be hard, I’m so sorry to hear that.”
As she shaded in my arm, she filled in the gaps of yearning and seeking
“Thank you. Can I ask you a question? What do you think about gay marriage?”
Help me, Jesus, fill my mouth with winsome grace and bold love.
“That sounds like it has a back-story of its own. Tell me more.” I replied.
She proceeded to pour out her heartache. As she shaded in my arm, she filled in the gaps of yearning and seeking; of love gained and lost; of hopes she had, and anguish she lived with. And there, with this young woman holding a needle to my arm, I saw past the stereotypes and ink, and saw a frightened and broken girl who carries a fractured image of a God who formed and loved her. For the next two hours, she told me her story; it was the same story so many have told—the story of humanity—yet it was also her story. My role was to listen.
This is life on the new frontier. As Australia walks further into a post-Christian reality, these are the conversations the church will have. We’ll meet baristas and bartenders, tattoo artists and executives, all of whom carry a story of love and loss that has never been knowingly exposed to the gospel.
Learning to Listen
Something amazing happened. She just listened.
And first we must learn to listen well.
As my tattoo began to take its final form, her story was coming full circle, and with it a sharper image of this precious child. It was not well with her soul, I knew it, and I’m certain she knew it. She still wanted to know what I thought about her fractured lesbian relationship, her broken marriage, her headlong quest for purpose and belonging. So I gently told her. I painted a picture of God’s beautiful design for human flourishing; I sketched an outline of his good purpose for his creation. I filled in the gaps, as best I could, in an attempt to explain sin as an active rebellion against God’s right to be God. Then, something amazing happened. She just listened. She asked a few clarifying questions. She didn’t rage or become bullish. She just listened.
I wish I could tell you that she fell to her knees in repentance, that she cried out for mercy from a God willing to give it. I wish I could tell you that I gained a new sister in Christ that day. But none of those things happened. That is also life on this new frontier. But I’ll tell you what did happen. I made a friend that day. I’m a pastor, now in my mid 40’s with a pretty cool tattoo on my shoulder; my friend is a 30 year old lesbian who is now aware of grace. She hugged me when I left that day, handed me her card as she said, “When you get your next ink, I want to be the one to do it.” Occasionally, as I see that ship’s stern pointing toward the light on my right shoulder, I stop to pray for my friend, pleading with the Lord to tattoo his own name onto her heart.
I pray I’m not the last disciple she ever meets. I pray that her journey of love and loss will lead her to discover the great shepherd who is seeking her. I’m also planning my next tattoo. It’s past time for another good conversation.
First published at ploughmansrest.com