Tattoos

Dust

Psalm 103:13-14

“As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.”

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Well, I finally got tattoo #8 yesterday. I’d been thinking about it for some time, but the logistics only just fell into place. Whenever people see a tattoo in another language, the first thing they ask is what it means. Well, in this case, the Korean symbol on the back of my ankle means “dust.” It isn’t the only symbol for dust in the Korean language, but this one means, “soil, earth, clay, dust, ground, terra.” And that seems pretty close to the meaning of dust in the Bible verse above. WE. ARE. DUST.

I think we forget that sometimes. We think we are greater than we are, more invincible, more in control of our own destiny. Or maybe we are constantly beating ourselves up because we aren’t as great as we think we should be; we aren’t as kind, honest, or righteous as we are called to be. We fail. We fall. We disappoint ourselves, and those around us, and presumably God. But the verse above suggests that our God is a God of compassion, understanding, and unconditional love.

We also need to remember that, just as we are formed from dust, so are the people around us. They will fail. They will fall—and the higher the pedestal you’ve put them on, the greater the fall will be. They will disappoint. They will betray. And God remembers that they, too, are but dust.

Now, does this mean we should throw in the towel and dispense with all the good we know we should do? Does it mean we should do away with our efforts to promote justice and righteousness? And does it mean we should try to avoid the consequences of our actions, or protect others from suffering the consequences of theirs? No, no, and no. Paul makes that abundantly clear in Romans 6:1-2: “What then shall we say? Shall we continue in sin so that grace may increase? By no means! How can we who died to sin live in it any longer?”

We should do what we know to be right and good. As Micah 6:8 commands, we must seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. And as Jesus stated (Luke 10:27), we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Still, as hard as we try to obey God’s instructions, we will fail at least some of the time. And no matter how hard our fellow believers try to keep those commands, they will fail. And no matter how much trust and loyalty we place in our leaders, they too will fail. And maybe, just maybe, if the God of the universe—holy, righteous, and just—can show compassion toward such dusty creatures as you and me, then perhaps we could too.

Who I Am–Part VII

Matthew 16:24-25

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me,
he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.
“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it;
but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”

I’ve been married almost seven years. But I have to admit, I was never one of those girls who was anxious or eager to get my MRS degree. I had plans, and I worried that marriage would interrupt those plans—be it through an inconvenient move, or an unplanned pregnancy, or any number of other “trials” that sometimes come along with marriage.

But what can you do? I met a great guy and we decided that we might be able to serve God better together than alone. Besides, when the time came to say good-bye and go our separate ways, neither of us really wanted to. So we planned a beautiful but casual wedding—in a barn! And that was before it was “cool” to get married in a barn. But before we got married, I got my most recent tattoo. It’s on the inside of my left wrist, and reads “Surrender” in Arabic.

This was very intentional. I knew that marriage would mean sacrifice. I knew that motherhood would mean sacrifice. Knowing this, I chose to give up any control that I perceived myself to have, in pursuit of the greater good. But making that choice consciously didn’t negate or nullify the sacrifices that would follow. It hasn’t even always made those sacrifices easier. But if they were easy, I guess they wouldn’t be sacrifices.

As I’ve thought about this truth over the past few days, it occurs to me how perfectly suited this entry is for today—Easter. Jesus, after all, is also well acquainted with the ideas of sacrifice and surrender. He chose to submit to the Heavenly Father’s will, to come to earth, and to humble himself, taking on human flesh. He laid down the rights of his deity, and then he laid down his very life as a sacrifice for our sins. And we sometimes console ourselves with the delusion that, because this sacrifice was undertaken willingly, it was somehow less sacrificial and less requiring of surrender. But the Bible makes clear that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Even knowing the glory set before him on the other side of the grave, Jesus pleaded with God the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). As if that wasn’t enough, Luke 22:44 tells us that “in His anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground.”

And if surrender and sacrifice were so taxing to Jesus’s spirit, how can we expect anything less? Our lives will offer these opportunities and invitations over and over again, until we are ultimately called home. When they come my way, I do my best to hold open hands up to the heavens in acceptance of God’s will. And when I do, I’m reminded of that word—surrender. I’m convinced that Jesus also holds his hands out in front of him from time to time. But instead of his scars reminding him of surrender or sacrifice, they remind him of you and of me. It is as though his hands are tattooed with the word beloved…along with each of our names.

Isaiah 49:16

“Look, I have inscribed your name on my palms; your walls are constantly before me.” 

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Who I Am–Part VI

Matthew 6:7-8

“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans,
for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them,
for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

A while back, about a decade ago now, I spent some time in northern California, making some great friends, great memories, and great self-discoveries. I will always remember those times, and look back on them fondly. Indeed, I’m long overdue for a visit back—but that’s another story. For now, I want to tell you one story in particular that relates to tattoo #6.

At a friend’s, I noticed a stone sitting on a coffee table with a symbol chiseled into it. I liked the design a lot, and wondered if it would work as a tattoo. But when I asked what it meant, my friend replied, “Om.” Om—as in, a mystic syllable, considered the most sacred mantra [appearing] at the beginning and end of most Sanskrit recitations, prayers, and texts. Hindu culture considers it to be the root of the universe and everything that exists and it continues to hold everything together.

“Oh,” I replied in obvious disappointment, “I guess I can’t get a tattoo of it then.” I mean, its meaning certainly wasn’t in keeping with my Christian faith, right? But my friends described it in a few different ways, trying to clarify or maybe qualify its essence. And finally, one described it this way: “It’s kind of like prayer without words.”

That stopped me in my tracks. “Oooh, I like that!” I thought about it for a few months; I pictured it in my mind. I thought about that last meaning, prayer without words. We know, as Christians, that the Spirit intercedes for us with groans that we can’t even comprehend when we say the wrong things, or when we have no earthly idea what or how to pray at all. There are times like that. In those moments, it seems like the idea of prayer without words would bring peace and comfort.

Besides, I reasoned, it will be a reminder to pray for people of other nations, cultures, and religious beliefs. I’m loathe to admit, though, that its placement on my lower back is not always conducive to my seeing it and remembering to make those prayers and petitions. I need to work on that.

It seems like we hear and see “Om” all over the place now…at the natural food co-op, on the window outside the yoga or massage parlor, in the movies, everywhere. Perhaps now it will serve as a reminder to you of the importance of praying continuously, and of praying even without words. Or perhaps you’re like me and you need the reminder to pray for those who are not like you—no matter the source of those differences. God most certainly sees and loves us all, and will honor our efforts to better love Him and our fellow man.

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Who I Am–Part V

Deuteronomy 6:5-9
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

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Sitting here reminiscing and trying to chronologize some of the exciting adventures I’ve had, I realize I’m at a loss. Case in point: I remember scuba diving in the Bahamas, but when exactly was that? Was it during my “two years of travel” (AKA my last two years in the Air Force)? Or was it after I got out? And if it was after, was it before or after my missions trip to New Zealand? It matters only in that the two trips are now indelibly intertwined on the outside of my left food. The tribal design featured in the above tattoo is a Maori symbol for “hammerhead shark.” If you look closely, you can kind of see the unique head shape of the shark. I was intrigued by both the design and its muse.

Now, I’ve been on a number of dives, in a number of places, and two or three of those dives were shark dives. But on none of them did I see a hammerhead. It’s on my bucket list, for sure. And just so I don’t forget, it’s right there on my foot.

I’ve always figured that God created hammerheads with such an odd head shape for some ingenious reason. Well apparently, the shape serves numerous purposes. According to Wikipedia, those include “sensory reception, maneuvering, and prey manipulation.” I wonder why this particular shark needed this particular shape? For its unique diet? Or its unique environment? I don’t know, but I know the one who does. But do you know what I just learned about hammerhead sharks? I learned (again, from Wikipedia) that hammerheads travel in schools—at least during the day. This also is unique among sharks. At night, they hunt alone.

As I reflect on that existence, I see distinct parallels between a school of hammerheads and the Body of Christ. I can see the need for community and corporate worship, along with the need for individual spiritual nourishment and rejuvenation. In our church bodies, we see a variety of passions, gifts, and abilities that allow us to function as a family of believers, and as a team of effective witnesses of and for the Gospel.

They allow us to serve one another when we’re in need, to comfort one another in times of pain and loss, and so much more. But we can’t serve these purposes and respond to our God-given callings if we don’t also seek Him in the quiet of our own hearts. These aren’t new truths to me, but the added significance and reminder provided by my tattoo is new. I don’t believe I will ever look at it in the same way again.

Who I Am–Part IV

Psalm 37:23
“The steps of the righteous man are ordered by the Lord.”

I’m kind of addicted to tattoos. Have you figured that out yet? I actually have a “tattoo guy.” He’s done all but the first three of my tattoos. He solidified his position when he custom-designed the frog on my foot. You see, I had a necklace that had a decorative tree frog hanging from it. I loved the design and wanted to use it for a tattoo, but three or four different tattoo parlors were unable to convert that frog into a two-dimensional image. So I walked into one more tattoo parlor and that’s where I met Garrett. He looked at the necklace, excused himself for about five minutes, and came back with exactly what I had envisioned.

There was just one problem. The only way to make the details crisp and clear, he told me, was to make the frog about FOUR TIMES the size I’d imagined! I hesitated briefly, but I’d been wanting this tattoo for years. I trusted his professional instinct, and he was right about the colors and the design. But I have to be honest, there are some days when I still think the frog is a little big, a little much, a little too conspicuous. But then, every now and then, I’ll run into a stranger or an acquaintance, and they’ll comment, “Hey, cool frog!” It reminds me that there are very few people who see that tattoo day after day. Most only get a glimpse in passing.

And that reminds me that it isn’t just about my tattoo. It’s about how many people that I pass by on any given day, and how many people only get a glimpse of me. And I think to myself, What do I want them to see? And the answer, of course, is, Jesus. I want them to see Jesus. So maybe that looks like a smile for a cashier at the grocery store, holding a door open for someone whose hands are full, giving up a seat for someone who needs it more than I do. Maybe it looks like grace for someone who makes a mistake, forgiveness for someone who has let me down, sympathy for someone who is suffering, peace in the midst of turmoil, joy in the midst of grief, or patience with my kids. I want to make the most of the glimpses that people get of me, and that means seeing every moment for its full potential. It means watching for opportunities to love, give, and serve.

My frog tattoo is the only tattoo I have that, to be honest, had no meaning or symbolism when I chose it. I can’t tie it to a Bible verse, or an adventure, or a dream. But even so, if it reminds me to embrace those opportunities to give people glimpses of Jesus, that’s meaning enough for me.

Who I Am–Part III

Do you ever have memories and experiences that seem branded in your mind? And they were so awesome that they seem to become a part of who you are? Well, when those kinds of things happen to me, I like to have a memento, and that often comes in the form of a tattoo. In this case, I have the Hawaiian symbol for turtle tattooed on my lower back. Why? I’m glad you asked.

Years ago, I took a trip to Cozumel, Mexico, with a group from a local dive shop. We spent a good bit of our time on a boat and in the water. The drift diving in Cozumel is amazing, by the way—you feel like you’re flying. Some of the coolest things were the seahorses and the sea turtles. I remember one dive where I was drifting along, headed toward an opening in a cave, and a giant sea turtle came gliding out, headed in the opposite direction, and we passed one another so closely that we almost touched. I wish I had video, because it was simply magical. But that’s not why I got the turtle tattoo.

No, the turtles were a land-based adventure. One evening, our group decided to rent some dune buggies and drive around the island. We had a lot of fun along the way, but the only thing I really remember is Punta Sur, the southern tip of the island. It was just before dusk, and we got out to have a look around. Soon, a Mexican man approached us, holding a small Igloo cooler, and he offered to show us what was inside. A little freaked out that it might be something untoward, we hesitantly peeked inside. What we saw was a baby sea turtle in a small pile of sand. In broken English, the man explained that this turtle was injured, and needed to go to the “hospital.”

But then he invited us to follow him, saying, “More, more.” Curious, we followed him to the beach. There, he began digging in the sand. After a while, we began to see little baby sea turtles climbing out of the hole. He invited us to join him, and I began digging. Some of the turtles were still crawling out of their eggs. At one point, I pulled an egg out of the sand, and the turtle literally hatched in my hand. Once we had helped to “deliver” some 200 baby sea turtles, we worked together to guide them to the water. It was dark by this time, and we held flashlights to mimic the light of the moon. You see, with sea turtles, you can’t just dump them in the water and wish them well. They NEED to make the journey to the water themselves, otherwise they won’t be able to find their way back when it’s time to nest.

Why all this human intervention? Wouldn’t the turtles do all of this on their own, in good time? Well, we learned that there is a major problem with predatory birds, and that if unassisted, many of the turtles wouldn’t even make it to the water. As it was, we were told that many of these turtles wouldn’t survive their first year. But the more we could get to the water, the better their chances of survival. There was this one turtle who kept getting turned around, heading away from the water, and crawling up my foot. I felt a connection with him and SO wanted to sneak him home and raise him in my bathtub. But the prospect of $10,000 in fines and 10 years in a Mexican prison ultimately dissuaded me.

Finally, after turning quite a few turtles around and slowly leading them to the water, our task was complete. We bid adieu to our new friend and thanked him for the experience of a lifetime. We also bid adieu to our babies, wishing them good luck and Godspeed. And when I got home, I chose a tattoo that would commemorate the experience. (Nowadays, you can pay outfitters to manufacture this kind of thing, but that seems to lack authenticity.)

You know, it’s kind of like divine appointments—where God puts us in just the right place and at just the right time to be part of something AMAZING. And while I’m not sure that the social climate of today is ripe for following some stranger down a darkened beach, I think we do need to be open to God’s leading. Speak when he tells us to speak. Listen when he tells us to listen. Smile at someone who seems to need it. And who knows, we just might be in for the experience of a lifetime.

Who I Am–Part II

Philippians 2:15b
“…Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky…”

My second tattoo is a Chinese symbol for the word “shine.” It was inspired by Philippians 2:15 and was intended as a reminder to me that I should shine God’s love and character in the world around me. But truth be told, its location in the center of my upper back makes it something I seldom see. I wonder if that has anything to do with how frequently I seem to fail at this task. I so often feel dim when I observe my words, tone, thoughts, actions, and even feelings.

I have to confess that for these couple of days, I’ve felt overwhelmed with and defeated by my own shortcomings. My self-efficacy is practically non-existent at the moment. I feel as though everything I set out to do results in failure. In truth, it isn’t literally everything. But certainly, there are a lot of things that have revealed my weaknesses. Weaknesses, you say?

Well, thankfully, the Bible has a few things to say about weaknesses—a few encouraging things, for these moments when I feel discouraged.

  • “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God” (1 Corinthians 27-29).
  • “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
  • “He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary” (Isaiah 50:4).

I don’t know about you, but even after a fairly tumultuous couple of days, I feel like I can sleep better tonight, resting in His strength. I hope you can, too!

Who I Am–Part I

Ephesians 4:30

“Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,
by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”

The new year, for many, is a time of resolutions. But for me, it’s just as important to spend time reflecting on the person I already am as it is to contemplate the person I want to become. So that’s how I want to kick off the new year. And to get a feel for who I am, we need look no further than my body art. If you want to know what’s important to someone, consider what they’ve had imprinted on their bodies in indelible ink. In the same way, my tattoos offer a glimpse into the memories, passions, and dreams that comprise me. So this week, I want to tell you a bit about my very first tattoo.

When I was in high school, I met someone with a multi-colored ichthus tattoo on their ankle. Theirs had only four colors, but I remember thinking it was really neat. I decided then that I wanted to get a similar tattoo when I turned 18. Of course, to make it my own, I chose to include a cross as well, and to incorporate more colors. When people heard about my planned tattoo design, some expressed concern. Are you sure you want a Christian fish permanently etched on your skin? I mean, what if the end times come? What if the antichrist rises to power and starts executing Christians?

Well, so be it. I have no intention of denying my Lord—tattoo or not. Granted, Peter thought the same thing and ended up denying Christ three times in one night. But as much as I believe that I would remain strong, I’m happy to take the choice out of my hands. And do you know what’s funny? When I got my tattoo, my parents cautioned me to be sure this was what I wanted. At the time, my dad was pastoring a small church. And that first week, when I showed up at Sunday service, it was my DAD who was showing my tattoo off to the congregation members. Oddly, I think that he had a sense of pride that I would wear my faith like a badge of honor. And I imagine that God feels a similar sense of pride when He looks at that tattoo. I pray each day that I will reflect Him in my thoughts, words, and deeds—that I will honor Him in my behavior, so that people will see Him in me. Because being a believer in and follower or Christ is the single most important part of who I am. And I’ll leave you with this question: Who are YOU?