That is a picture of a bonsai tree. I have never thought much about bonsai trees until I met Neil. I met Neil a few months ago and he asked me a great question: “What are the three things you want to do next?” I fumbled around with an answer and then asked Neil what he wanted to do. Neil had obviously thought about this question for a while and he was ready with his answer. His first ”next thing” was to get a tattoo. When I asked Neil what he wanted for the tattoo he walked over to the bookshelf and grabbed the dictionary. He leafed through the pages until he found the page that he wanted and plopped it down in front of me. “I want a bonsai tree,” he said. “Look at what it means.”
I read the definition for bonsai tree out loud: “A plant miniaturized by its culture.” I knew immediately that this was the perfect image for Neil to have engraved in his flesh. Neil hadn’t been given the option of travelling the easy road. He’d been on his own since he was about sixteen-years-old. By age twenty-three he had experienced more struggle, near-misses, and consequences than most people that I know. He had, indeed, been miniaturized by his culture. And I think he was hoping that there was some purpose, beauty, and life being shaped in his story. ”I’ll take you to get the tattoo,” I told Neil. I wanted this image carved into his flesh to remind him that the diminishing messages of his culture did not have the final word.
Now I have two tattoos. One is a less than half-inch heart on my right wrist. I got this tattoo for Christmas a few years ago after my then seventeen-year-old son taunted me, “Mom, you’d never get a tattoo.” Well, I showed him and got my braveheart tattoo and certainly lessened the desire for my teenage son to get something that his middle-age mother had gotten first! My other tattoo is on my left wrist. It is a white tattoo of a cross. If you look closely — in the right light — you can see it. It really looks more like a scar, which was my intention — to remind me that by Christ’s scars we are healed, that wounds are where Love gets in. Both of my tattoos took me about 15 minutes total in the tattoo parlor.
Neil’s tattoo was quite a bit different from my two tiny designs. Neil wanted his tattoo to be significant — something that would be hard to miss. He wanted the bonsai tree to span his entire rib cage on one side of his body. I watched (for a few minutes at a time) as Neil got his tattoo. Matt, the tattoo artist (complete with full “sleeves” of his own tattoos), worked for about four hours to permanently mark Neil with the bonsai tree. It hurts to get a tattoo of this magnitude. It bleeds. Neil would wince, cover his face with his hands, and stiffen his body so that Matt could tenderly bring forth the image that Neil wanted to carry on his body for the rest of his life.
Neil, his bonsai tree tattoo, and Matt the talented tattoo artist made me think about a couple of things. I have read that most people who get tattoos have a message that they not only want to mark themselves with, but that they want to proclaim to others. My tiny tattoos are really more reminders to myself than proclamations to others. I wondered what image I might have seared into my flesh if I wanted it to be the Message that I would leave with others. I know the Message that is most meaningful to me has to do with love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. I have seen people who have these words tattooed on their skin in English or other languages, but to me they fall short of conveying the depth of meaning that these realities have to me. And I know that I don’t have the courage or fortitude to get a tattoo that could fully tell the story of this Message.
I read once in Rolling Stone magazine that tattoos are the “art of the soul of this generation.” But engraving the flesh with a message is really not new. The New Testament describes the art of the Soul of God when the doubting disciple Thomas met Jesus after the Crucifixion. Jesus helped the doubter believe by marking his body with His message: “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe” (John 20). Brennan Manning describes these marks as, “Brilliant wounds of a battle long ago, almost like a signature carved in the flesh.” The signature of Jesus announces, better than any words, “I would rather die than live one day without you.”
There is one remarkable difference between the marks of Jesus and any tattoo that we might get. The brilliant wounds of Jesus are not only intended to reveal the Soul of God, they are intended to bring forth an image from our souls. Seeing the signature of Jesus — really seeing it — allows no one to remain unchanged. I used to believe that we were all desperately searching for God — that our journeys reflect our search for something to fill the “god-shaped” hole inside of us. Experiencing redemption in the many broken places of my story has taught me that the deepest story is that God is searching for us — and the wounds of Jesus (the holes in his hands, side, and feet) are intended to invite me to surrender to the One who is surrendered to me.
The signature of surrender. Jesus has engraved it into His own body so that it might become the art of my soul in a Message that emanates from my story – not that I crave something from God. I crave God. And God doesn’t want something from me. He wants me.
“Thomas said, ‘My Master! My God!’
Jesus said, “So you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes . . . that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it’” John 20.