Saturday, August 09, 2008

Faith Works 8-16-08
Jeff Gill

What Are We Supposed To Think?

Opinions and observations are my stock in trade, and trust me when I say the shelves are well stocked.

So when I ask the question “what are we supposed to think?” it doesn’t mean I don’t have an idea myself, or that people ought to spend more time telling others what to think, which no one likes to hear.

Yet when every new crop of political ads is parsed and analyzed for “what it really means” or how our thoughts are being manipulated by subtle symbolism, I’m looking around in the here and now and asking about some of the up-front and in-your-face messages that we seem to be sending each other.

Sometimes you can see the outside of the message, but can’t figure out what’s inside the envelope, so to speak.

Tattoos, for instance.

Yes, my family has been out to the State Fair and Hartford Fair recently, why do you ask? And as you walk around in the sun and heat, where everyone is dressed accordingly, you certainly see some major tattooing going on.

A few questions – when you put a band of two-dimensional barbed wire around your arm for life, what do you want me to think? That you’re tough? That you’re a fascinating mix of tender and tough when a sweet faced, well-coifed young lady has a barbed wire wrap sealed with a skull?

Or all those skull tattoos. I get the Grateful Dead “feed your head” message in the tie-dye t-shirts and car stickers with a blossoming skull, and the contrast is meant ironically between the hard, enduring bony eye sockets and the colorful wispy petals of flowers growing within. (I also get that you’re thinking pharmaceuticals get you closer to the heart of that irony, which is why I don’t got one.)

But all the skulls with snakes coming out of the eye sockets, flame-topped skulls, and other grim reaperish body d├ęcor . . . what do you want me to think when I see your clearly placed on display body art? That you’re a dangerous person to be avoided? That I should trust the friendly smile and assume that you were joking when you put a grim harbinger of death on your shoulder?

I’ve got a civic, governmental question, too. When we see the now more common red and yellow license plates, indicating that the registered owner of the vehicle is convicted of DUIs, what are we expected to think? That we should avoid tailgating this person? That neighborhood kids will pedal their bikes by saying to each other “whoa, that’s an ugly contrast that I don’t want on my ride someday!”

Do we think that putting these in ever growing numbers out on the roadways will cause more people to scorn and mock their neighbors, or will they just start to become one more option in the riotous range of license plate logos?

What I think when I see one is “what are the odds the person driving that vehicle today is even the one this plate is meant to warn us about?’

There are t-shirts that I’d like to ask “what are you wanting me to think” of the wearers, but most of them I don’t feel comfortable describing on the “Your Faith” page. When I see a dad and two young kids walking down the street, with dad’s chest making a lewd suggestion to the world, you have to wonder if there’s any thinking going on there at all. Maybe all the other t-shirts in the drawer were nastier than that one, so this was the choice meant to say “hey, I’m trying here with my children, give me a break.”

Churches and church-going folk may not have many of the above-mentioned issues to deal with in-house (koff, koff, ahem). Anyhow. What faith communities often do have trouble with is seeing how their building, their signage, their parking areas, let alone their worship, is saying something to new visitors.

Very often, what we’re telling people to think is “you really won’t feel comfortable here; are you sure you belong here? Thanks for dropping by, we’ll pray for you . . . as you leave.”

Hey, we respond, that’s not what we want people to think. If we can step back and take a good long careful look, we might learn something about how a stranger or unchurched person might see what we’re saying to them; often as tattooed, yellow license plated, lewd t-shirt wearing members of our communities. How do we make them think “God may actually care about me, after all.”

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your story of how your congregation tells their story at

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