I went to a small liberal arts college in the heart of Arkansas, and it was there that I decided that I wanted to pursue ministry as a calling. Over the course of my four years, I became a religion major, studied a semester at a divinity school, and interned at a local church, and as I neared my senior year, I felt quite passionate about this direction in my life.
The first and only time that all of our class’ religion majors were in class together was for our senior colloquium, and it became clear very quickly that only about one third of the religion majors were actually religious. And they were equally as passionate about that direction for their lives—that for them, there was a place for the academic study of religion, but not so much for its practice, let alone belief.
And so I responded as any passionate 21 year old would respond: I got a tattoo.
I was very thoughtful in this decision, carefully choosing the placement and the word—faith, in Hebrew.
Afterwards, I proudly showed a fellow student who knew Hebrew. And he looked at it for a few moments, and squinted a bit before saying, “Those are Hebrew characters…but that’s not a word.” Turns out Hebrew goes from right to left, whereas my tattoo’s characters were left to right. My faith was backwards.
My friends tried to comfort me, assuring me that it didn’t matter so much—that it was more about what the tattoo meant to me than if it actually said what it was supposed to say. While they were kind, it didn’t make up for the fact that within six months I’d be taking my first Hebrew class in seminary with gibberish Hebrew tattooed on me.
So a second trip to the tattoo artist and a little bit of grace later, my faith actually said faith, in English this time. It wasn’t the tattoo that I had first envisioned. The lines were rough (and now several years later, faded), and the script a little strange as a result of being a cover-up job.
But I think faith is like this. It’s not always particularly elegant. There are places where it’s a little rough because that’s what it took to fix what was once backwards. The faith that we have now isn’t necessarily the faith that we had first envisioned having. It sometimes has more questions than answers. It learns to navigate dark nights of the soul. It isn’t afraid to grow and learn and change, to make the circle wider, to err on the side of grace, to let go of a little pride in order to be authentic.
My desire is to practice this kind of faith, and to help our people practice it as well.
Rev. Elizabeth Smith-Bartlett is the Associate Pastor at The Larchmont Avenue Church, where they now know that she has a tattoo.