When you’re different you spend a lot of time explaining yourself. Even small deviations from the norm make people curious.
During children’s moment a couple weeks ago I asked a question and an adorable curly-haired little girl to my left raised her hand high. I called on her expecting to hear the answer to, “Who are the characters in the three little pigs?” Instead she asked, “Why do you have that ring in your nose?”
Kids ask me this is a regular basis. Adults tend to be more shy, but I love getting to chat with the tiny humans whose curiosity is still larger than their sense of manners or privacy. The short answer is, “Because I like it! It’s kind of like an earring, only I wear it in my nose instead. Kind of silly, huh?” They usually giggle, some tell me they like it, some tell me they don’t, but either way I’m happy to encourage them to speak up and start conversations. Same thing with my tattoos. The kids I nannied for were always fascinated by these words written on my skin that never washed off, even in the swimming pool. They liked to run thier fingers over the ones on my feet, fascinated by how these markings blend seamlessly into my body. “Why?” they wanted to know. “How?” “Well, they were drawn on with a special pen, and they’re things that are really special to me. So special that I want to carry them with me all the time.”
There’s more to my answer than just that, though. Yes, I got my nose ring because it makes me happy. It’s fun, and some things don’t need a reason. Especially small things like jewelry. My tattoos make me happy, too, but they are also reminders of the words and faith of those who’ve gone before me, specifically Maya Angelou and C.S. Lewis. I had to argue with the artist at the tattoo parlor for a good ten minutes to assure him that I did indeed want “courage, child” written facing me, not out to the world. “It’s not for them,” I argued. “It’s a reminder to me.” When I look down at it and at the form of Aslan on the other foot, I hear my (stepfather) Chuck’s voice in my head reciting those words from The Last Battle, “But, courage, child; we are all between the paws of the true Aslan.” And I’m comforted. I’m strengthened. I’m brave again. Same with looking at Maya Angelou’s defiant optimism on my collarbone. “Still I rise.”
The truth is, I feel more like myself with these things. I’m not exactly Nadia Bolz-Weber–in fact, with a button-down and boots on you’d say I look like any other basic white girl–but these tattoos and this nose ring are part of me. An important part. I remember talking with another tattooed friend in seminary about how we sincerely hope we’ll get to keep these souvenirs in Heaven. They are such a big part of our stories, and they’ve become part of my ministry, too.
There was a time when I seriously debated whether ordination was where God was calling me. I connect so deeply with the role of a deacon in the United Methodist Church and desperately want to help “church people” and their communities come together to build relationships and promote social justice. But when I was preparing for my interviews with the Board of Ordained Ministries, a friend asked, “What is it that you feel called to that you could not do without being ordained?” and I wrestled with the answer.
I began to fear that I could do everything I was called to as a layperson, and that ordination might actually come between me and the folks I most wanted to serve. I was afraid of becoming “Reverend Elizabeth” who only blessed the blessed, who didn’t have much in common with folks outside of the church, who had erected barriers between herself and those who live with poverty or discrimination or doubt. A veteran of ministry once told a group of ordination candidates like me, “In a few months or a few years you will become full-fledged ministers, and no one will be honest with you ever again because of the weight of your title.” I worried he was right.
“Wait you preach here, too?” a guest at Grace Place asked me when I handed him my card. He read the title and did a double take. “That’s what’s up! I’ve just never seen a pastor who looks like you.”
I get that a lot. Almost as often as kids ask me why I have a ring in my nose, if it hurt, or how I keep my tattoos from washing off. Depending on who it comes from, they’re probably referring to different things. Some have never run into a “lady preacher,” though those folks are getting fewer and farther between. Some assume I’m too young to have graduated high school, much less seminary. Some are thrown by my slouchy sweaters and sandals, but most often it’s my tattoos and piercings.
Every person who has said this to me, though, has phrased it as a compliment. It’s a good thing.
It is one way of lightening the load of the title, of connecting with folks who feel a little or a lot outside “the norm” of church world. I know it’s not much, but it is something. It’s how I embody the person God has created and called me to be, and I hope that seeing that be okay at church reminds people that they are safe to do the same. I hope it helps them remember that there are a lot of different ways to look like Jesus. I pray that I can be one of them.