I wear my heart on my sleeve

Mission worker’s tattoos illustrate faith, start conversations

Dec 9, 2019 by and

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When Alisha and I and our son, Asher, moved to Barcelona, many things didn’t make the cut in our attempt to “leave all things behind” and follow Jesus. However, Martyrs Mirror was never on the chopping block, despite its six-pound weight.

A 17th-century book of more than 1,500 pages, Martyrs Mirror is filled with stories and testimonies of Anabaptists and other similar-minded Christians who were persecuted and killed during the Reformation.

Perhaps its most famous story is about Dirk Willems, a Dutch Anabaptist who was running from the authorities after he escaped imprisonment. Fleeing across a frozen lake, Willems heard a loud crack and realized his pursuer had fallen through the ice. Willems went back and rescued him. This act of profound compassion and enemy-love cost him his life, and he was burned at the stake.

I love sharing this story. For me, it captures one of the most stunning Christian acts I’ve ever heard of, proclaiming that one’s liberation cannot come at the cost of someone else’s suffering.

It has affected me so profoundly that I got the well-known copper etching of this story tattooed on my arm.

​A tattoo on Joshua Garber’s right arm tells the story of Dirk Willems from Martyrs Mirror. — Alisha Garber/MMN

​A tattoo on Joshua Garber’s right arm tells the story of Dirk Willems from Martyrs Mirror. — Alisha Garber/MMN

The Willems scene has joined several other tattoos, all of which delight in different aspects of God that I’ve learned in my walk with Christ.

I have a page from Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, wrapped around one arm — a beautiful parallel of the Prodigal Son.

I have a nautilus deconstructing into a plot of the Golden Mean — God’s fingerprint that shows this recurring phenomenon of order and intention in a seemingly chaotic universe.

I have a bird and flowers — a reminder that if God takes care of such things then I shouldn’t worry.

And there are several more.

When you consider a modern definition of “sleeve” — an arm covered in tattoos — I’m not joking when I say I wear my heart on my sleeve. In doing so, I’ve had the opportunity to tell the story of Dirk Willems dozens of times. Whereas it’s a safe bet most copies of Martyrs Mirror never leave the house.

My tattoos are conversation starters. They’re personal reminders. They’re an act of worship and obedience, a nod to Deut. 6:8 (“bind God’s message to your hands”) and 1 Cor. 6:19-20 (“your body is a temple; honor God with your body”).

Wearing my heart on my sleeve illustrates a faith perspective that genuinely confounds most people who have been turned off by certain branches of Christianity. It has built countless more bridges than barriers, allowing my body to proclaim the gospel even when my mouth doesn’t have the words.

I had forgotten there are still Christians who are shocked by tattoos — until this past summer when Alisha and I were sharing about our ministry in Barce­lona with a wonderful partner church in rural Kansas. The first question we received was, “Can you tell us about your tattoos?”

If making some ethnic Mennonites scratch their heads is the consequence of decorating my arms with visual stories, inspired by the divine, like the cathedrals of old, then I’m OK with that.

Any natural opportunity to share about the subversive nature of Christ’s love is worth making some folks uncomfortable.

Alisha and Joshua Garber, along with their son, Asher, serve with Mennonite Mission Network in Barcelona, Catalonia, a region where allegiance to Spain vies with voices calling for independence. They work alongside the leaders of the Mennonite church in Barcelona, focusing on youth outreach and congregational mission.


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