For my twenty-ninth birthday, I wanted a tattoo.
Maybe with my thirties approaching I needed to do something a little reckless, but I also felt the need to pay attention to permanence.
I knew I wanted words, and maybe an image. Jesus’ invitation to the weary and burned out, learn the unforced rhythms of grace, came to mind. And then, I remembered lyrics from a gospel song that had often caused me to stop and pay attention when I heard them: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me. It’s a beautiful song that’s often sung at funerals–occasions that merit hope, that call for speaking and singing what we desperately need to hear.
If I’m honest, these words activate my cynicism and faith equally. Like all good poetry, they ask me to wrestle my way to a larger meaning.
I was learning to live with uncertainty. My faith was growing up: out of the chirpy God has a plan! stage and into something a lot more like the dark glass described by the apostle Paul. Someone I loved dearly had slipped quietly away from this life; it was cruel, quick, and strange. I felt I’d seen a righteous man forsaken; his children begging for a certain kind of bread. I could find no purpose in it, and certainly didn’t know how to reconcile the situation with the notion of a loving, personal God, or more specifically, with the God of my childhood who granted good parking spots and lengthened limbs, who filled dental cavities with gold and made suspicious lumps disappear. It was confusing–I thought I had left that particular notion of God behind (keeping other ideas that still made sense) but I can’t deny that I wanted Him to show up and fix things.
In the wake of this loss, there was a choice to be made: pine for the old God who works magic for those He loves, or move forward into the unknown, where God isn’t so easily explained. Like Elijah, I found that God was not in the whirlwind, earthquake, or fire, but in the still small voice. Sometimes, when our pain causes us to be very quiet, we hear that Voice–achingly familiar but missing elements we had in our minds before.
In the absence of easy answers, it was the quiet presence of friends that offered the most healing. I believe a sacred presence saturated those moments, too, that God (or something like God) is with us when we share a friend’s grief. Maybe what we learned in Sunday School–that God is up there and we’re down here–is incomplete. Maybe God is in, around, and through us, not part of us so much as tangled up with us.
The Book of Job, thought to be the oldest chronological book of the Bible, is often cited in times of sadness and loss. I’d heard my share of commentary on this book: that it’s a lesson to praise God in all circumstances, that God rewards the faithful in the long run, that God is God and we are not. I have no doubt that I used these explanations to attempt to comfort friends in the past. None of that was helpful, I discovered, when I was the one hurting. I had no stomach for the text until I learned to read Job as poetry rather than explanation. In Job, we find an ancient wondering about the nature of God. I took comfort in knowing that humans have been asking essentially the same questions about suffering for thousands of years.
Like Job’s friends, it’s in our nature to simply sit with people in their grief for only a short while before we start to offer explanations and solutions. Lest we feel too confident in our understanding of the state of things, it’s good to revisit this book and be reminded that God offers mystery in response to Job’s questions rather than reasons for his undeserved hardship. There’s a tension in the book that’s never truly resolved, much like the tension in my heart whenever I hear the words His eye is on the sparrow.
So I asked my friend, a talented tattoo artist, to design something around these words. He drew an elegant cage with a swung-open door and a bird flying free, I chose a font and gritted my teeth through the pain and made light conversation as the image, and the words, became a permanent part of my body, etched onto my foot. It hurt, but it felt good to be documenting something sacred.
The image serves as a reminder to me that God can live and breathe life through our actions, through our ability to sit with a friend in sorrow without offering explanations or tired promises we may not even believe ourselves. The bird is faith; the cage is certainty.
With tattoos come questions. Understandably, people want to know what causes another person to do something so permanent. I never quite know how to explain mine in one or two sentences, especially if I’m doing something completely non-serious like getting a pedicure. Still, it’s a gift to be asked. We all need to tell our stories, don’t we?
I look at this message on my foot, and think this is what I most want to be true. I want to believe that it’s in the nature of God to know of every fallen sparrow, every hair on the head of every abused child. Every hair that falls from the head of a cancer patient. Every vacant look in the eyes of a mother who’s just lost her child. Every person in a pew who attempts quiet bravery, no longer speaking or understanding the language that rolls easily off the tongues around them. The homesick who haven’t left home. I’ll be honest–I have no idea what to think about God right now–but I want to believe that God orchestrates comfort for them, in ways I don’t understand, simple and profound.
If I get to the point where my conscience demands I let go of religion altogether, and I think about that quite a bit these days, I will be left with this mark on my body. But shouldn’t things that matter leave a mark?
As for my questions, and there are many, I find hints of answers, not enough to sustain me for more than a day or so. When Jesus spoke of daily bread, maybe this is what he meant. I try to keep track of the hints. I’ve experienced love in this life–is that to say I’ve experienced God?
Whatever the force behind it all, I’m grateful for the pull of poetry, the healing presence of friends, and life-changing questions: these things have served my faith well–whether it’s a faith that holds on or a faith that ventures out.