I’m getting a tattoo.
You might find that kind of surprising. So here’s the story of why.
I’m kind of a goody-two-shoes. I’ve been that way for a long time. I’ve always liked pleasing people, as far as I can remember. I always got good grades. I always toed the line (outwardly, anyway). I always avoided conflict. I always achieved. I always followed the rules. I liked following the rules. They told me what I had to do to look shiny, and my shininess was my trophy and my shield.
But on the inside, I didn’t follow the spirit of the rules. Often I pleased people or avoided conflict out of fear. I got good grades because I liked getting everything right and feared the shame of making mistakes. I had perfect church attendance, but it wasn’t motivated by devotion, and it became fuel for me to look down on those whose attendance was less spotless. I played with my younger sister the exact number of minutes I was required to, and then I tricked and bullied her until she went away (or got left behind). I didn’t often directly lie to authorities — too confrontational, too risky, too black-and-white — but I deceived. I twisted and finagled my words and my thoughts and my world to protect my secret selfishness. I sneakily read books with flashlights after bedtime, late into the night sometimes. I learned my memory work then, too, having watched TV before my homework was done (despite a house policy to the contrary), because — I told myself — the real deadline was making sure I had it done in time for school in the morning. I hated when my little sister copied me, and especially when we wore matching outfits, so I would come out wearing one outfit, make sure I was seen, and then go quick-change into something else, only to emerge when it was time to go and there wasn’t time for my sister to change. I did what I wanted, which was a combination of what I wanted to do and just enough of what I didn’t want to do to keep everyone else happy and off my back.
I didn’t technically disobey often, but I wasn’t really obedient either. I was an expert at non-disobedience.
I didn’t really start to come to terms with all of this until I heard a sermon preached about the book The Prodigal God, which reframes the parable of the prodigal son (the author renames it the “Parable of Two Lost Sons”) as a tale about two types of lost-ness: the obvious, rebellious lost-ness of the prodigal son, and the subtle, sneaky, self-righteous lost-ness of the elder brother. I recognized myself immediately. I knew I had to read that book.
…But I didn’t. Life happened, my list of books to read was long, and it slipped through the cracks.
Then, as part of a reading group, I read the book Tired of Trying to Measure Up. I didn’t really identify with the title much — after all, I always could measure up to people’s expectations, for the most part — but I heard it was a powerful read, so I dug in.
I was totally blown away. I FINALLY UNDERSTOOD why I felt so anxious about making a misstep, and why I was so deadline-driven, and why I never really felt like I needed God, and why finding myself self-employed (with no one to please or perform for) was so darn difficult. I was stuck in a cycle of trying to justify myself, and it was motivated by trying to avoid shame — trying to prove my worth with my own two hands.
Looking back, I think the truth of this idea softened my shell just a hair. The armor cracked just enough.
I don’t even remember all what I read that struck me — looking through the book again, I can’t really find anything terribly quotable. But I do remember the part where I read the list of God’s names:
During biblical times, a person’s name was really important. People gave their babies names that described the characteristics they wanted them to have when they grew up. A name wasn’t just a label; it was a description of the nature or character of the one to whom it belonged. Look at some of God’s names:
Elohim, the Strong One;
El-roi, the Strong One who sees;
Jehovah-jireh, He is our Provider;
Jehovah-raffa, He is our Healer;
Jehovah-nissi, He is our Banner;
Jehovah-ra’ah, He is our Shepherd;
Jehovah-shalom, He is our Peace;
Jehovah-tsidkenu, He is our Righteousness;
Jehovah-shammah, He is Present.
All of a sudden I got it. I GOT IT. All those years of knowing about the Bible, of being smart, of giving the right answers to avoid pain, of hiding and sneaking and pleasing and deceiving — and only now, at the age of 26, did I get it. All the work I do to be shiny doesn’t matter. My own name doesn’t matter. The name on me is God’s. It doesn’t matter if I’m shiny. In fact, working to be shiny is counter-productive, because the facade of shine distracts me from reality. My “righteous” deeds were really filthy rags. Rather than fixing the hole in the wall, I had spent my whole life trying to cover it up. I was a whitewashed tomb.
I finally just read The Prodigal God last week. It’s a short book, so it didn’t take long. But the whole way through, I just kept thinking, “Yep, that’s me. This is me. This is what I’m fighting.” The transition from that place to my tattoo action step is well-illustrated by this passage:
Why doesn’t the elder brother go in [to the Father’s feast]? He himself gives the reason: ‘Because I’ve never disobeyed you.’ The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.
So I’m getting this tattoo to remind me that I’m not shiny. I can’t be perfect. I can’t earn my way into the big feast in the sky by following all the rules. And not only that — but I need to stop whitewashing my tomb.
This tattoo is risky. It’s (somewhat) counter-cultural. It’s visible. To make sure I can please everyone and keep my “future life options” open, I should remain clean and unblemished. Or at least put it somewhere more discreet, where no one will see it. I shouldn’t get this tattoo.
So I am.
My tattoo will read “YHWH shammah” (in my handwriting), which is Hebrew for “The Lord is There” or “The Lord is Present”. (Found in Ezekiel 45. You’ll also notice it’s at the end of the list quoted above.) And when I look at it, it will remind me that it is physically impossible for me to be without blemish. But the Lord is there. Or, to summarize with a secular quote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” (Leonard Cohen)
This is my reminder that I’m cracked. It reminds me to stop plastering over the hole and just let the Light in.
UPDATE: It is finished. Here’s a picture of my tattoo!