There’s an old joke that asks: You know what you get when you assume?

The well-worn joke responds by dividing the word “assume” on both sides of the “u” and we see what becomes of “u” and “me.” (Hint: Synonym for donkey.)

Assuming is something most of us do, and unfortunately it’s something I’ve done as far back as, uh, yesterday.

But, I ask you: What do you assume when you see someone with tattoos?

At my age, when I see tattoos, it’s hard not to imagine a gang member or ex-con.

Last week I met a fellow in the hospital with tattoos all over his face and neck. There appeared to be some pretty scary words inscribed on his neck, but I didn’t want to get close enough to confirm what they said. In fact, I didn’t want to approach him at all.

But, as I often sardonically joke, I guess that’s why I get paid the big bucks.

I swallowed hard and approached him with my usual pitch about what chaplains do for pediatric families. As I spoke, the man’s expression softened, and his face began to welcome me.

He immediately told me prayer is important to him and that he’d already been telling his newborn about Jesus.

Yet, by the looks of the man, you could have told me he practiced ritualistic killings, and I’d have assumed you’d read his rap sheet.

The Apostle Paul encountered some people in the early church that also made some assumptions about markings. These people fiercely assumed no one could be a true follower of God unless he was properly marked. (Sorry, ladies, I do mean “he.”)

This marking came in the form of the Hebraic tradition of circumcision.

OK, I know many of you have already spewed your Cheerios, but hang on for a minute longer and let’s discuss how it became assumed that marking your privates was supposed to make you closer to God.

It was simple, really. Circumcision was a Mosaic practice, and there were some people in the early Christian church who were preaching that if one followed the practice of Moses and Jesus, you would make the perfect hybrid faith. I mean, if you were a new Christian convert willing to undergo this little surgery, it could be assumed you had what it takes to be a super follower of God.

But the Apostle Paul stood up to the surgical scoundrels and told them they were “trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules that crushed our ancestors.”

Now don’t get all glassy-eyed on me. This isn’t a seminary lecture. The deal is, Paul was saying we can’t assume people have God or don’t have God just because they don’t look like us below the belt, or anywhere else for that matter.

“Don’t you see?” he asked. “It’s not the cut of a knife on your skin that creates a person of faith, it’s the mark God puts on your heart.”

Ah-ha! Paul is warning if we assume the absence of God in someone, it’s like taking a knife to them and cutting out grace. Assuming keeps us from seeing the potential of people and what God calls them to become.

Tattoos, purple hair or earrings out the wazoo don’t define who people are. Identity is marked deep within the heart. And if you want to see that, you have to get close enough to drop your assumptions and read the writings, not on their arms, necks or other appendages, but on their hearts.