We were tucking into our pasties next to a ridiculously Cornish-cream beach and blue-green sea when the conversation turned to tattoos. The Beloved fancies something discrete and pretty but hasn’t yet committed. No. 4 son curls his lips in a ‘yucky’ sort of way while other sons are more enthusiastic. No. 1 son’s girlfriend reveals she already has a tattoo. This is new information. We inwardly rejoice that she feels comfortable enough to share this with us. Shamefully, we also rejoice a little that we’re ‘cool’ with this while her parents are clearly not. Beloved has seen on a vicar’s arm ‘God forbid that I should boast, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’, and looks at me pointedly. Not sure if Beloved wants me to have a tattoo as an evangelistic tool or an anti-ageing device. No. 1 son is recently back from Uganda and would like to have ‘wulira emirembe – be free’ which, being in the language of Lusoga, is obviously Very Cool. I believe any body piercing needs to be approached with caution, after consultation and careful planning, and must be painlessly reversible. I realise that in this I’m following diocesan guidelines for renovations to all ancient monuments so decide to keep quiet. The group thinks ‘my strength and my shield’ would be a good tattoo for a vicar. But then I think of friends who have not been shielded from bereavement, redundancy, mental illness, heartbreak… It seems to me ‘my strength and my shield’ doesn’t say it all.
‘OK, but how about putting on the other arm ‘s**t happens!’’ I offer. I do believe that God is ‘my strength and my shield’ but clearly not as I want it when I want it. ‘S**t happens’ when God is on duty. So if God is ‘my strength and my shield’ I have to wonder – what kind of strength? what kind of shield? The mystery deepens.
As the group warms to the challenge of capturing the meaning of life, the universe and everything in a single sentence, I realise that there is no one verse or motto about God I would want as a tattoo. Because as soon as I say something about God, I need to say ‘yes but…’ But with two arms I could have two tattoos and that invites all sorts of creative possibilities. If you had to choose two sayings about God or life, what would you choose? Please write in!
Needless to say neither Beloved nor I got a tattoo this holiday. The fabric of this ancient monument is no longer a clean canvas for the tattooist’s art so I hand that particular baton on to the next generation. Beloved did get a nose stud though. I’m very complementary but for some reason she forbids me from getting one.
By the Revd Ian Bussell, Diocesan Director of Ordinands