Debra Samuelson: Tattooed for Life


A man from Good Shepherd, the church I'm serving in Minneapolis, told me that he and his twin boys were watching a football game together. The boys noticed and commented on the tattoos of many of the players. It opened up a wonderful conversation for them. Bill, their father, talked about the stories; all those tattoos have stories with them.

Ask someone the story of their tattoos; most love to tell those stories. I know I sure do!

I have two small tattoos. One is a rose on the top of my left foot. I love it when people ask me about it. When my children were teenagers and we were still living in Atlanta, they gave me a rosebush for Mother's Day one year. My son's words when they gave me this bush, were, "Mom, you're the rose in a world of thorns." Aww--that was so sweet! And that is a story worth a permanent, never-to-be-removed mark on my body!

A little P.S. Neither one of my children remembers giving me that rosebush, and my son does not remember saying those words to me. I think they think I was dreaming this whole thing...and, frankly, given their teenage years, that I was dreaming it probably makes more sense--but it's what this mother remembers, and that's my story and I'm stickin' to it!

So back to the football game!

Bill, the wise father that he is, used this conversation with his boys about stories and tattoos as an opportunity to remind them of their baptisms and of God's story in their lives through their baptisms. He said to them, "We have our own tattoos, you know. You are marked with the cross of Christ in your lives--forever."

And, oh my goodness, what a story that is to tell!

And why is there a story to tell about baptism, an event that happened to many of us before we were even capable of remembering that event?

When Jesus had been baptized and the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove, a voice from heaven said, "This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

"Beloved." What a beautiful word. To be beloved is to be adored. To be beloved is to be cherished, is to be treasured.

This is the promise in our baptism. It is first an act of God--God claiming us as God's very own--a beloved child--and then God declaring to us--simply because we belong to God--that God is well pleased with us.

Now that is a story to tell: that I am beloved by God and that God is pleased with me!

Because that is not always the story we tell ourselves. Most of us have another story that runs in our head. Sometimes we call this storyteller the inner critic, that one who reminds us just what a failure we are or how people may only be pretending to like us; but if they really knew us, they would run away, or how we are not attractive enough or talented enough or clever enough or intelligent enough to be beloved--much less have someone be pleased with us.

Life can hold with it joy and laughter and wonderful conversations and friendships, some close enough even to be our chosen families. And right alongside it, life can bring with it loss and disappointment and sleepless nights and an inner certainty that no matter what we do or no matter how hard we try, we're just not measuring up.

Which is why we need to tell this baptism story over and over again--to counter the story of the inner critic--to counter the story the world often tells that to be truly beloved you have to possess something: money, house, good looks, power. We tell this baptism story over and over to counter the story that you don't measure up or that you don't belong.

The story of baptism is not only a story that we belong to God and are beloved by God; it is a story that we belong to each other, that we are a part of a larger story of God's presence in the world.

Our theme at Good Shepherd for Lent several years ago was baptism. We wanted our people to remember their baptisms and the difference being baptized makes in their day-to-day lives. Months earlier, in conversation with a couple of our talented artists in the congregation, the idea came up about creating a baptismal font for Lent that would somehow would also be interactive. I loved the idea and they ran with it...but it ended up a little bigger than the original plan. I was thinking of a nice little fountain with some water that would be running and maybe would splash around and draw some attention to it. But when the congregation entered the church that first Wednesday evening in Lent, they discovered a huge 10 by 10-foot box with 2 1/2 feet high cement walls, with three pipes sticking up about 5 feet from the bottom. Around the foyer were chunks or pieces of limestone on flats, left over from landscaping jobs because they weren't the right size or they weren't the right color or the right shape for their original purpose, each one with a round hole drilled through the middle of it. Following the worship service and a moving sermon by my colleague, the community was instructed to line up and take pieces of the limestone, pass each one down the line and put them on the pipes until each pipe was filled to the top with limestone pieces. What people hadn't realized was that those pipes were water pipes. When they turned the water on, water started trickling out of those pipes and over the stones, and these leftover stones that had been rejected from various jobs of the landscapers--all different shapes and sizes and colors, now stacked together and with water sprinkling over them--had become a beautiful fountain.

Those stones were us, we who sometimes feel rejected because we just don't measure up and yet are chosen to be part of something big and beautiful, just as God had chosen us in our baptism to be a part of God's kingdom, a member of God's family. And as we watched the water run over the stones, we could imagine God's love, shown to us in the waters of baptism, washing over our lives, bathing us in love.

We come together in worship because we need to hear over and over again that God loves us and has claimed us as beloved children, cherished and treasured. And we come together in worship because our wells sometimes have run dry and we need to feel those refreshing waters of baptism trickling over us again. Because sometimes life is just so hard we have no words to pray or no songs to sing; we are just that empty. Sometimes it's the community of the baptized that sings those hymns we can't always sing, and sometimes it's the community that prays the prayers we can't always pray, and sometimes it's the community that speaks the words of faith that we can have trouble speaking ourselves or even believing ourselves. And we just let those words and songs and prayers wash over us, reminding us of God's love, reminding us that in the waters of baptism, God has called us and claimed us as God's own--beloved and delightful--cherished.

That's the story of our baptisms. That's a story worth telling, over and over again. That's a story worth living in.

Please pray with me. Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, you know how hard this life can be. We thank you for the community, the body of Christ, where we are reminded of your boundless love for us in your word, in the Sacraments, in one another. Use us as your living word in this world, to reach out, to cherish others as we are cherished, to work for justice and peace in this your kingdom on earth. In the name of Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.