Why I’m Getting a Tattoo (My Testimony)

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!

tattoo YHWH shammah

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Wisdom from My “Timothys”

Wow. I have been feeling so blessed by the wisdom of my “mentees” (like I’m supposed to teach THEM things!) this week that I thought I’d share a few of their more profound gems with you all.

First, from my new-blogger-mentee:

Everyone needs a Paul, a Peter, and a Timothy — a mentor, a peer, and someone to mentor.

Gosh, isn’t that just so true? I am still rolling that one around in my mind. So much depth. I won’t say more, since I believe she’s going to blog about it soon herself. =)

And then from one of my high schoolers during our discussion about addiction today. You’ve probably heard either the Native story about the two wolves (if not, go read it here!) or at least the saying about “What you feed grows; what you starve dies.” Here’s what came up as we talked about that principle within our lives:

Student 1: I think sometimes I starve God, just because I am so busy feeding other things like homework or sports.

Student 2: I don’t think I’m starving God, but I’m not really feeding him a feast either.

RIGHT??? We don’t starve God completely — but sometimes we sure don’t feed him well. More like bread and water. Just enough to keep him alive.

Mmm. Deep and wise thoughts from some fantabulous Timothys — and these are just the soundbites! Who are the Timothys in your life? What have you been learning from them lately?

“Uncertainty is in every true discernment…”

Today I don’t have any particular declarations. I just wanted to share with you what I think is a really profound little nugget from a fascinating and wide-ranging in-depth interview with Pope Francis (hat tip to Nina for the full interview link!). Read and ponder [emphasis added]:

Certitude and Mistakes

I ask, “So if the encounter with God is not an ‘empirical eureka,’ and if it is a journey that sees with the eyes of history, then we can also make mistakes?”

The pope replies: “Yes, in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

“The risk in seeking and finding God in all things, then, is the willingness to explain too much, to say with human certainty and arrogance: ‘God is here.’ We will find only a god that fits our measure. The correct attitude is that of St. Augustine: seek God to find him, and find God to keep searching for God forever. Often we seek as if we were blind, as one often reads in the Bible. And this is the experience of the great fathers of the faith, who are our models. We have to re-read the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11. Abraham leaves his home without knowing where he was going, by faith. All of our ancestors in the faith died seeing the good that was promised, but from a distance…. Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing…. We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.

“Because God is first; God is always first and makes the first move. God is a bit like the almond flower of your Sicily, Antonio, which always blooms first. We read it in the Prophets. God is encountered walking, along the path. At this juncture, someone might say that this is relativism. Is it relativism? Yes, if it is misunderstood as a kind of indistinct pantheism. It is not relativism if it is understood in the biblical sense, that God is always a surprise, so you never know where and how you will find him. You are not setting the time and place of the encounter with him. You must, therefore, discern the encounter. Discernment is essential.

 

In which I brag on my high school girls…

Today when I met with the group of 10th grade girls I mentor we talked about our goals and plans for the year. As a part of planning some of our discussions, I had each of them brainstorm quietly on a piece of paper a few topics they’d like us to address. When I brought them home and started to read them, I was BLOWN AWAY by not only the depth of their thoughts but the breadth! I love to brag on these wonderful ladies, so I thought I’d share my compiled outline of their thoughts. I’ve reworded and done a tad of fleshing out (like on “sin”) to make it be a proper outline, but all the ideas are theirs — there is not a topic here that doesn’t come from what they wrote down!

Suggested Discussion Topics for 2013-2014

1. Who Is God?

  • Character & attributes

2. How do we experience God?

  • Do you have a personal relationship with God?
  • Do you ever think God’s not listening or you don’t see him in your daily life?
  • Talking to God (Prayer)
    • What is prayer?
    • Why should we pray?
    • How should / do we pray?
    • What experiences do we have with prayer? (Is God answering your prayers?)

3. Why does God matter to us?

  • Sin.
    • What is sin?
    • What does God think about sin? / How does sin affect our relationship with God?
  • Salvation.
    • How does God “fix” sin?
    • Repentance, Forgiveness, & Reconciliation.
      • What does it mean to “repent”?
      • What is forgiveness?
  • Predestination vs. Free Will

4. What does it mean to be a Christian? / How do we respond to God?

  • What is a Christian?
  • Church history / denominational family tree
  • What does the Bible say Christians should do / be like?

Love God

  • What is worship?
  • How can we love God (more) ?
  • How do I be more Christ-like / How do I live out my faith?

Love Others

  • What does it mean to love my neighbor? / Who is my neighbor?
  • Loving my enemies
  • The body of Christ: Community, Encouragement, etc.

General

  • What is the Bible? How should / do I read it?
  • How to be an example / mentor
  • Dealing with tough stuff (e.g. death, depression, loneliness, etc.)
  • The female body: body image, modesty, etc.
  • School: Managing time wisely
  • How to be a light at a Christian school (dealing with disagreement / hypocrisy)
  • Revenge
  • Witnessing: Being a light / telling others about Christ
  • What does the Bible say about how to be a righteous woman?
  • Being a Christian even in the midst of “coolness” / Dealing with peer pressure
  • Healthy relationships
    • Family
    • Romantic
    • Friends
    • Dealing with conflict
    • Gossip / accountability

Ok, folks — there is PREDESTINATION on there! I am so impressed. (Not to mention my other mentee / friend, who just started her own blog with the question “What is sin?” I mean really — how do I get to be friends with all these fantabulous humans???)

Back to the Bible…

Wow. So I just looked and the last time I posted on here about my Bible-reading was in September. Yikes! Part of that is because, well, I haven’t been so good at my Bible-reading lately. (Which is bad not because reading the Bible every day makes you a good Christian, but because when I read the Bible daily-ish I feel more peaceful about life.) But no worries — I have returned to my Bible-reading plan of choice just in time to share with you some thoughts about Leviticus today! Woohoo!

I’m not gonna lie — I’m kind of excited to be done with Leviticus. It’s not the most engaging of narratives… in fact, it’s not a narrative, but a list of rules and guidelines. But even amidst all those regulations about goats and shekels I found an interesting tidbit today:

All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it. (Lev. 26:35)

This comes during God’s explanation of the consequences for repeatedly rejecting and disobeying God’s laws. I find it fascinating that the earth/land is personified as a victim of the people’s sinful rejection of God. Because the people have forsaken God’s commands (including the lying fallow of the land during the jubilee years), one consequence of their disobedience is not only to be driven from their homes but for the land they have abused to be taken from them and let to rest as it should.

Hmm… yet another verse emphasizing our call to care for our earth. It makes me wonder how so many people thought (and still think) that the earth was/is our plaything to be used or abused at will.

Humans sure have a messed-up view of authority. For example, we are given “dominion” over the land — but as we see here, that should mean careful, tender guardianship, not selfish exploitation. Same with people (usually men) who really push male headship — if you really believe in that, it should mean you lovingly care for and support your wife, not control or rule her. Same with children — parents should take “raise them up in the way they should go” as a call to Christ-like modeling and tender care, not a controlling demeanor of punishment and “justice”.

God doesn’t control us! As strange as it sounds, God actually allows us the free will to make our own decisions, for good or ill, up to and including rejecting him. (And he gives us a lot of do-overs, too!)

So where do we get the idea that leadership equals domination and guidance equals control?

How Contented Is Too Contented?

In the comments on Daniel’s recent post on overemphasizing the “buddy system” as an ethical model, a friend asked the following:

“How content is too content?  I’ve been feeling very happy lately, and it’s making me a little uncomfortable.  Should it?”

I started to respond in a comment but realized I had a lot of thoughts on the subject. So here’s my answer:

First, I think that even pondering the question “How content is too content?” is evidence that you are unlikely to ever be “too content” for very long. If you are truly self-examining to the extent that being “too happy” or “too content” is a cause for question, then I think you are doing a great job of carefully considering the course of your life. Keep on paying attention!

Second, I think a huge part of considering this question involves defining “content”. Do you mean “content” as in “happy and fulfilled and feeling that I am responding well and fully to God’s calling”? Or “content” as in “happy and satiated and feeling that I don’t want to get out of bed ever”? (Confession: fighting this one right now!) Or “content” as in “sedentary, happy, and sitting back on my heels with a feeling that I have arrived and thus can coast through the rest of life”?

I think the “bad” kind of contentedness comes around when we allow happiness to lull us into inaction or a sense of achieved permanency. For example, one way I struggle with contentedness right now is my desire to find one place to live, take root there, and resolve never to leave because I want to be from somewhere and not from everywhere, as I was growing up as a PK. My “poor-me plea” line is, “I’m not really from anywhere — I’ve never lived in any place for more than seven years. I want to plant roots and have a hometown and be FROM somewhere!” Implicit in this near-whine is, “God, after all I’ve done for you, don’t I deserve this? Don’t I deserve being able to rest on my laurels for a while and enjoy my happiness?”

Again, the desire for contentedness is not “bad”. BUT, as we see in my example above, it is extremely easy for a desire for contentedness to “take over” and become an idol, something that we feel God “owes” us. In short, contentedness becomes problematic when we let it block our responsiveness to God’s call.

Let’s return to my “planting roots” example from earlier. Let’s say that Daniel and I have a lovely, happy, financially responsible housing situation that involves living with other Christians (we do). Let’s say that I struggle with feeling like a meandering wanderer with no past roots and I want to make a long-term commitment to a geographical community as a part of my spiritual calling, etc. (I do.) Let’s say that I get so caught up in the importance of planting my roots in my current geographical community that I completely ignore and run from God’s call for us to move to Peru. (This is where it gets hypothetical, but you never know!) At first, my desire for geographical community roots came from a desire to serve God and God’s sheep where I am. That’s a good thing. But as soon as my interpretation of God’s plan for me becomes more important than God’s ACTUAL plan for me, I place my own contentedness higher than God. I no longer want what God wants.

So, how content is too content? …It depends. Do you feel lazily-and-sedentarily contented, like when you never want to get out of bed? Or do you feel actively-and-vocationally contented, like when you feel awesome after a tough workout? Are you sulkily clinging to your contentedness as if God owes you some happy, easy times after “all you’ve done for Him”? Or does your contentedness come from a sense of peace and trust in God’s plans for you, no matter where those plans take you in life?

Of the first kind of contentedness, I want none! (In the big-picture, that is. In the small picture, I want it all the time.)

Of the second kind of contentedness, the kind that comes from having the “peace that passes understanding down in my heart” (Where? Down in my heart!), I want more!

So go ahead and be content — but make sure it comes from God and not from you.

A Deep Question From An Old Friend

Recently I received a letter from a friend. While going through some papers, he had found a letter I wrote him while I was a camp counselor almost six years ago and he decided to respond to it anyway. (Super fun!) Apparently we had been discussing some pretty heavy stuff back then, because one of the questions he asked me was this: “How has God informed the decisions you’ve made daily? How has he influenced you in your interactions with your husband and your decisions, including [leaving] teaching and your return to Minnesota? What and who is God to you?”

What a fantastic question!

It took me by surprise a little at first, but after a few re-readings and some thought, this is what I came up with. I hope you enjoy reading my answer to the question — but I also hope that you will take the time to answer it for yourself.

——————

To your question about how God has informed my decisions and who God is to me, first let me say that I don’t really understand God. Not fully. That’s probably why God is God and I’m just little ol’ me.

But what I do know about God — what I believe, and what guides my whole life and all my decisions — is that God is a good God who desires above all things for we his children to be close to him.

I believe that one day we will be very close to him, in heaven. The way I bring the feeling of God close to me now, here on earth, is by choosing actions that I believe serve God’s ultimate purpose and desire for the world, which is that it be good and right as God is good and right.

So when I choose content writing over teaching, it is partly because it makes me happy but even more so because when I am happy I am more productive in bringing about God’s kingdom. When I teach, I am overworked and exhausted and constantly wishing I could actually help my students. When I write for non-profits, I am confident and productive and constantly seeing evidence of the ways that my work helps organizations help families love each other and stay afloat. THIS (my current work) is how I best help my students (or at least kids like them): I serve in the ways that make the most difference in bringing about God’s good kingdom in their lives.