What My Tattoo Means

As I mentioned in my previous post, I got a tattoo this week. This is something that’s been a long time coming, and I’ve been thinking about how to share about what brought me to doing it.

For several years, I’ve kept having the idea of idols in my life popping up. There’s this concept of idols as put forth by Timothy Keller in Counterfeit Gods that says an idol is basically anything that becomes the top priority in my life, supplanting God. Idols are usually good things–family, work, exercise–that soon become all-consuming things, things that define who we are. When that happens, their goodness becomes twisted and ruined.

When God is in His proper place, first in my life, the fundamental foundation of who I am–a beloved child of God, always imperfect but always covered by grace–remains true no matter what happens in my day-to-day experience. When an idol starts to supplant that definition of myself, I start to waver. That’s when start I having to earn or prove my worth, when I start to feel like I need to do more, work harder at whatever my idol is, prove I’m worthy of love.

For a long time, then, I’ve been feeling God nudging me and telling me that my Saturday bike rides are too important in my life. I’ve long reserved Saturday morning to midafternoon for a big ride, and I’ve been feeling like God is telling me that I’m willing to put them above the well-being of my family, above my own well-being, above other important relationships. That that aspect of biking, the riding hard and fast and long with a bunch of guys I know, has become too big and important in my life.

As with any idol, biking is a good thing. It’s healthy, and for me it facilitates mental health, too. Even going for big Saturday rides is a fine thing; it’s great to get out and push myself, and many of the guys I ride with are my friends who I only see on Saturdays. Before I got my job at Tamarac, it was also one of the few times I got to be away from home and Benji for an extended time, and simultaneously have adult conversation. Saturday rides have played an important role in helping me stay healthy and sane the last five years.

But every single Saturday, all year long, regardless of how the week went or the emotional status or anything else, really? Especially since I started working at Tamarac, I have much less time with my family than previously. I don’t need the escape from home or social outlet (although these guys are still my friends!) nearly as much as I did before. Now what I need is relationship time with my family and our friends.

For a long time I haven’t been interested in listening to God’s nudges about this. But on July 5 I got sick with this fever virus, and it didn’t go away for a full 11 days — including two Saturdays completely off the bike. Despite my best efforts at eating to maintain muscle mass, I did lose fitness. I’m substantially slower than I was before, and I can’t just hop on my bike Saturday morning to crank out a quick 100 miles.

I pondered this reality last Saturday while I was not riding, but was keenly aware that Dad and several of my buddies were doing a one-day STP. They were all off doing a hard ride and getting stronger and faster, and I was at home pulling weeds and shooting squirt guns. I realized then that, while this sickness doesn’t end my season, it probably ends my season with those guys.

Through the day, I went through so many emotions: Frustration and disappointment and discouragement as I compared myself to them; slowly moving to acceptance and the reminder that comparing myself has never made me happy and anyway, I had a really great time with Benji and Mom and squirt guns. Finally I reached the point when I accepted that God was right: I needed to reprioritize my Saturday riding. It could no longer be paramount in my life, not now and not ever.

It took literally taking away my fitness for me to accept that my Saturday efforts–riding 20 mph for 100 miles, or climbing 10,000 feet in 100 miles, or doing something equally challenging each week–while fine goals, they can never be the most important thing in my life.

I shared this with Ian, and we had a talk about it. I felt so unburdened and freed! In that moment, I let go of comparing my riding mileage or speed or climbing to others. I let go of having to be my strongest, fastest self every day and every season. I put God back in His place and reordered everything else right:

Jesus
Others
Yourself

(Trust me, this is coming to the tattoo.)

This is only one example of where I’ve had to make a significant course correction in my life. Anorexia and vulnerability are two other areas that jump to mind, plus lots of marriage-related moments.

Every time, I’ve had to come back to this truth, which I first really started to absorb in Henri Nouwen’s wonderful Life of the Beloved, as I mention in this (surprisingly insightful) post:

I have value because I am God’s beloved. He loves me not because of what I’ve done but, by grace, in spite of what I’ve done. I am beloved. Nothing I do, no amount of brokenness, will stop the grace-filled love God has for me.

The tattoo is my reminder to make that truth my North. I want to remember every time I look at it that I am beloved and that God freely loves me over all the ugliness in my heart and all the nasty failures of my actions. It’s a powerful truth that changes how I live at the deepest level. I don’t want to forget it, and now every time I look at my arm, I will remember.

And about biking? This week, my first week healthy, Ian and I decided together what kind of bike ride would work for us as a family. It looked like this.

I rode alone. I left at 9:00, an hour later than usual, and I played more with Benji than previous Saturday mornings. My ride was short, by summer standards, but I did get out. And when I got home, I took Benji for a walk in the woods and some playtime at Blyth Park while Ian got a nap. We are all happy.

Except for my hands, which got sun burned because I didn’t put sunscreen on them and I took my gloves off because I was too hot. But I kept my arm covers on and my arms–and, more importantly, my tattoo–remained un-burned.

I Got a Tattoo

Compass Rose Tattoo

I am pretty stoked.

How I’m going to keep it out of the sun for the next 30 days while also doing my usual bike training, however, remains a mystery yet to be solved.

I originally set up my tattoo appointment in April, and the earliest date that worked was June 29. But the artist had to have foot surgery, so they rescheduled a week or so before the day. The rescheduled date was for September, but they added me to the list of people to call if sooner spots opened up. One did open up, last Thursday, and I quickly took it — and then had to cancel when my fever returned with a vengeance on Wednesday. Fortunately, the artist had another cancellation for today, and I’m so pleased to report that, despite my extreme apprehension, my fever did not return today.

I rode my bike there, and I worked hard to get there early but arrived just a minute or so late (no big deal). On the bright side I got a good workout at the same time.

Then it was tattoo time and yes, it HURT. A lot. It didn’t get easier and it didn’t hurt less, but it was bearable and I bore it. Without crying, throwing up, or passing out, all of which the artist said she’d seen.

So now it’s done! There’s some aftercare that seemed mostly focused on keeping it clean and well moisturized, and not getting sunburned.

Like I said: Pretty stoked.