The Chi Rho

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photo by Jamie Sutter

The deal was that when they got married or broke up, me and her would get our first tattoos. We met when she started dating my good friend from college. We became instant friends and quickly the joke became which of them would “get me in the dating divorce.” The three of us were a little family for a while, and I loved that my dear friend had found such a great girl

It was years before the clouds rolled in. He’d always struggled between two men – the amazing, sensitive, kind guy he was when we were alone and the d-bag he could be in a crowd. Slowly the great friend faded into the background until all I ever encountered was the abusive jerk. Our friendship dissolved over time, but I committed to try to support the continued dating relationship. Until I couldn’t. His anger and abuse were doing violence to her spirit, and eventually I spoke my mind. I told her it would be a one-time deal but she needed to know that the relationship had become toxic. By now they had moved away so I heard news in bursts rather than watching it all unfold.

Then the text came while I was at work one day.

“When are we getting our tattoos?”

Things had recently hit a new bottom with them; he’d crossed over into cheating and she’d given him one. last. chance. I knew the message wasn’t due to a shotgun Vegas nuptial. I also knew that for better or worse, at twenty-seven years old I was about to get a TATTOO.

We made the appointments with a guy who came highly recommended by two of my friends who had extensive, high quality work. One even told me he wouldn’t LET me go to anyone else 🙂 I already knew what design I wanted, so I dropped off a photo and didn’t think much more about it until the day of the appointment.

Our only experiences with tattoos up to this point were hennas we’d had done at festivals, so we both opted for henna-like color. I was struggling with the potential stigma, regret, etc of getting some black or green blotch of ink embedded into my skin. I figured as this one faded it would at least look a little more natural (please don’t press that logic too far).

The shop was unlike any tattoo parlor I’d ever been in. I’d gone with friends to get piercings and tattoos The shops were always dingy and dark with pornographic posters and devilish designs everywhere. This place looked more like a spa. Everyone had stations in one well-lit main area rather than creepy back rooms closed off and wallpapered with half-naked Olsen twin pics. The pictures hanging here were all classic tattoo designs hand-painted by the artists who worked there. It was sparkly clean, shiny even. All the artists were friendly and professional, unlike other shops where I distinctly got the feeling I wasn’t nearly bad-ass enough to take up their time. She was her natural protective, mothering self, creeping over the tile to try to get to me whenever I flinched or sharply inhaled. In his professional tone the artist just kept saying, “Back on the carpet please.” He told us he’d had some bad experiences with people passing out while they watched friends get inked so he only allows one guest and they have to stay in a designated area. The pain wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d imagined; I remember it being more aggravating than painful. Even the healing after felt more like a sunburn than like I’d been stabbed thousands of times. The session was under an hour and we were on our way.

The design is ancient, having been around since the first century when Christians were still being fed to lions for sport and lit on fire to provide evening ambiance at the emperor’s shindigs. Similar to the “Jesus fish,” this design indicated secret meeting places for Jesus followers. It’s a combination of the first two letters of the word Christ in Greek, the common language of the day. It’s flown on flags and been sported on religious paraphernalia since that time.

Up to this point in my life I had a real problem with giving myself away to the emotional needy people around me. Unhealthy religious dogma, misunderstood Scripture, and a jacked childhood had mixed into a toxic brew of codependency. Two relationships in particular were the prototypes for every other painful relationship I’d get into through my twenties. One was with my dad, the one who raised me and disappeared when I was seventeen. The other was the boy I met right around that time, at seventeen in college and smitten. He was a thread through my emotional life for ten years until fate finally would allow it and we ended up dating for a brief time. Just long enough for the damage to be done. I hit the clichéd rock bottom and struggled for several years to break through the muck. Finally I gasped clean air and made my labored way to the shore. By the time of the tattoo appointment I had found some healing and resolved that never again would I allow myself to be claimed by another person. I had to learn that loving someone and allowing myself to be loved doesn’t mean an emptying of everything that makes me an individual person. I had believed my needs, my security, my identity were to be submitted to those of the Other. That love was about sacrificing yourself on the altar of another’s perception of their own well-being. That “laying down your life for a friend” meant allowing any damage to yourself in the name of the other’s happiness. But that isn’t love. It’s inviting abuse. Love is offering a whole self to another who can recognize and cherish its beauty, while calling out that beauty of the other in the safety of your own acceptance and care.

I began to really understand what it means to belong to the Lord. It means digging the roots of my identity into the reality that I am loved, accepted, protected. He wants the best for me, not to use me up in the care of others’ egos. If it does violence to my soul, it’s not of Him. That should be obvious, but it’s a lesson I learned through tears and blood. One day I came across these words in a book written by the prophet Isaiah amidst a description of the future days when the Lord makes all things new:

“Some will say, ‘I belong to the Lord’; others will call themselves by the name of Jacob; still others will write on their hand, ‘The Lord’s’ and will take the name Israel.” (Isaiah 44:5, emphasis mine)

My first tattoo is a reminder that I belong to no man or woman, but I do belong to Someone. It’s a belonging that means safety and love, challenge and hope, a discovery of identity rather than a stripping. I have written on my “hand”) that I am the Lord’s. Once I fully grasped and believed this, I found I was finally able to know what it is to love and be loved by the beautiful people all around me. In a sense I now understand that I belong to everyone; everyone is mine to care for. Likewise I am learning to be open to receive love from its many varied sources, like streams of living water flowing to and from all its bearers.

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