self development

The Significance of God's Tattoo

When you see the word "tenderness" what do you think of?  Tattoos, right?  Those two words usually go together, don't they? Well, I can't say I typically think of them in the same sentence.  Which probably shows my inadequate understanding about body art as being portrayed by the stereotypical picture of the Hells Angel Harley-storming brute whose tattoos make him look like a modern day pirate with some dark form of the skull and crossbones etched into his bulging biceps.  Not my best mental depiction of tenderness.

And yet ... I have seen some beautiful skin art.  I love asking a tattoo-wearing person if there's a story behind their picture.  There almost always is--a commemoration of someone or something meaningful and significant to them, or a symbol of their sense of purpose in life, or simply a depiction of something they like.  I've heard some evocative and very moving stories from these wearers about how the pictures move them deeply and inspire them regularly.

Which at times tends to end up reminding me of how "tattoos" and "tenderness" are related, even in the divine realm.  Notice this picture:

14 But you have said, “The LORD has forsaken me, And my Lord has forgotten me.” 15 But I the LORD say, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you. 16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; You are continually before Me."  (Isaiah 49)

God is pictured feeling tender love and compassion for her children.  In fact, the word compassion is from the word tenderness.  It literally means "cherishing the fetus in her womb."

Think of how much care a mother gives to the baby she carries inside her.  Once she learns she's pregnant, she immediately makes some lifestyle changes to make sure the child grows in healthy ways--she stops drinking alcohol, eats more fruits and vegetables, stops smoking, tries to reduce unnecessary stress, and the list goes on.  She does all this because she knows that even before the baby is born that child is nursing from her and receiving nourishment on every level.  So she even sings to her baby and speaks words of love and affirmation.

And then once the child is born, tenderness continues.  The same word "compassion" in this text also literally means "to fondle."  I well remember wonderful moments of tenderness when my kids were babies.  One of my favorites was me leaning back on the couch, holding my baby on my chest, and feeling completely relaxed and at peace with that precious bundle of life wrapped in my arms.  It was such a tender moment for me and a place of absolute safety and love for my child.  That fondling expressed a powerful covenant and commitment of value I placed on my baby.

When the mother nurses her baby, her own body is changed and impacted from these acts of love and care--oxytocin is released which tends to increase the mother's sense of wellbeing and happiness.  Studies have shown that even feeding the baby with a bottle (like for fathers or a care-giver who can't breastfeed), if the baby is held with a spirit of tenderness and loving care, releases oxytocin into the system.

So think of all this tenderness, cherishing, compassion, fondling in loving care that the parent feels for her child.  Think of all of this in fact moving and transforming the parent at the same time it's providing increasing confidence and security for the baby.  This mutual, symbiotic relationship is a metaphor for the divine relationship with us.

And then the bible text reveals a stunning reality--to memorialize this tender relationship, God has tattooed our name onto Her hand.  "I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; you are continually before me."

What art display has God drawn on Her hand to depict you me?  Is it a symbol of some kind?  A scene?  A word or few that describe my essence?  Maybe even a cross carved into Her hand with my name on it?  Kind of intriguing to imagine, isn't it.

Whatever the tattoo is, She looks at it often ("continually," says the text).  And every time She looks at the tattoo She's reminded of Her eternal love and tenderness for me.  That's why She has the tattoo.  She can never forget me.  Her divine essence moves and stirs with compassion every time She sees the tattoo and thinks of me.  She never forgets.  Like loving and nurturing parents, She loves me without conditions.  There's nothing I could ever do or not do to eradicate my identity as Her beloved child.  Once a child, always a child, period, forever!

Divine body art.  God's tattoo.  Infinite tenderness.

The french word for tenderness is poignant.  Used in conjunction with les bras ("the arms"), the related verb entendre means "to stretch out one's arms" in a gesture of welcoming love.

Picture it:  God stands with outstretched arms eager to embrace you, hold you, enfold you in Her arms; to cuddle You in safety, longing, and intense compassion.

So next time I hit a moment of discouragement, self doubt, insecurity, uncertainty, loneliness, or weakness, I'm going to try to remember:  my name, my picture, is tattooed on God's hand; at this very moment God is looking at it, thinking of me with absolute tenderness.  And She is holding out Her arms, inviting me into Her holy embrace, that ultimate, eternal place of safety and security where I remember who I am and who God is and how loved and valued I am to Her forever.

And She's got a tattoo to prove it!  I wonder what Her body art about you is like?

Why Take the Time For Self Development

46th Session This week I had the 46th session with a coaching client.  We started our journey together a year ago.  This is the longest I've coached a client - 46 sessions!  What has impressed me with this client's experience has been that it's only been in the last month that more visible break-throughs have been taking place.  I have seen profound transformation in his way of thinking about himself and life and how he's showing up in the world.  He has much more clarity as well as fulfillment these days.

My typical coaching approach has involved working with clients sometimes for a month, most often for 3 months, sometimes for 6 months (all involving weekly sessions).  I've helped people through life transitions, establishing personal dreams, developing strategic plans for business or personal issues, helping them achieve clarity about their strengths and life purpose, defining a new personal faith.  All very helpful journeys, according to their personal testimonies.

But in this case, we've continued for 46 sessions - mostly at his request - and certainly I've agreed with the value.  But significant change has happened lately that has caused me to realize some very significant realities about life growth as it relates to this lengthier journey.  Thought I'd share three of them with you in this week's blog post.

One, personal growth takes time. 

Regardless of your view of God and how God operates in the messy human process of growth, God rarely seems to simply "snap his finger" to transform people.  Pray as hard as you might, growth isn't based upon a magical formula that occurs in the "twinkling of an eye."  Genuine change takes time - it doesn't matter what the personal or relational issue, meaningful transformation simply takes time.

There's a reason why so many spiritual wisdom traditions call spirituality a "journey."  Personal growth is a process, a path.  Even Jesus called himself "the way."  Notice he didn't say "the point" or "the moment."  He's the way.  He's describing the process of spiritual growth - becoming a follower on a path which involves a journey that takes place over time, in fact over one's entire lifetime.  It's as though he's saying, "Follow me.  Watch me.  Consider me, what I do and how I do it.  Walk with me and observe, reflect upon, question, weigh, and wrestle with it all.  Practice what you observe with me.  Learn how to lean into it.  Be a follower on the journey."  Those kinds of experiences don't happen over night.  There's no simple formula.  Personal growth takes time.

Two, personal growth involves developing new ways of thinking.

No wonder it takes time.  Our thoughts create our realities.  In fact, some experts say there is no difference between cause and effect - our thoughts produce our experiences (and vice versa) simultaneously.  What we think, is.  So if we want to change our experiences, we have to change our thoughts.  Our thoughts are the fabric of all the stories we tell ourselves and others about ourselves, about others, about all of life, even about God.  Our stories (what we think and say about all of this) are the sum total of the thoughts we string together to describe what we think we're seeing and observing.  Our thoughts create the lens through which we see life. So if something isn't working well or serving us well in our lives, we have to evaluate carefully and honestly our lens (what thoughts we're stringing together to describe what we think is reality).

And if that lens is hazy or dirty or smudged or cracked, that impacts what we see.  This is why spiritual traditions describe the journey of spirituality as the process of cleaning the lens or even changing the lens through which we look.

St. Paul described this process:  "11 When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. 12 Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.  All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely."  (1 Corinthians 13)

He likens seeing through a cloudy lens as being a child.  When we're kids, our ability to see and understand the realities of life are limited.  Kids have nightmares or bad dreams about things that aren't real.  And many of us adults still have that limitation. :)

I remember having nightmares as a kid about gorillas.  I would wake up scared to death that the gorilla was in my room ready to eat me up.  My mom says she would often awaken in the middle of the night feeling this "presence" beside the bed and when she opened her eyes she would see me standing there (still asleep) but white as a ghost.  Rather unnerving for a parent (not to mention this little child).  A child's ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy is not well developed.  Kids are seeing imperfectly through "a cloudy mirror," as St. Paul put it.

As I've grown up, I don't have nightmares about gorillas anymore (thank goodness!).  But I do have more sophisticated fears that can equally incapacitate me at times and which sometimes prove to be equally fantastical (not based on reality, not true).  My gorillas have turned into fears about my worthiness, my ability to succeed, whether people will accept me or admire me, etc., etc.  I've at times gone into situations with other people completely sure that they would judge me or criticize me because of my past, only to end up experiencing just the opposite from them.  I almost allowed my "seeing through the cloudy mirror" to keep me from showing up in that group which would have caused me to miss out on a wonderful experience.

Kids don't understand the nuances in human relationships - life tends to be more black and white.  Maturation, human development and growth, is about learning the process of seeing more clearly, and sometimes of even having to change the lens because the lens is simply not true.

Notice that St. Paul describes his current knowing as "impartial and incomplete."  But he looks to that time when he will know everything "completely" (fully, accurately, wisely, without limitations that are self-imposed or otherwise), which he describes as the way God sees us.  The point he's making is that that path between those two times (from unknowing to knowing) isn't bridged instantaneously.  Personal growth takes time because it involves learning how to think more maturely and wisely, more divinely.  We have to grow up, to develop.  "By beholding, we become changed."  Are we beholding truth and reality or old "truth" and unreality?  Change the lens to behold clearly.

Three, personal growth necessitates personal patience and profound acceptance.  I'm getting better at giving myself some slack for the lack of perfection in my life.  That doesn't mean I'm choosing not to take self responsibility.  In fact, I'm taking more ownership for my life with all its foibles and dirty lens and my determined responsibility to make necessary changes then ever before.  But I'm learning to give myself more patience and self-acceptance along the way.

One author I was reading this week said that the most important gift we can give ourselves and others is acceptance.  It's a counter-intuitive choice.  Contrary to popular opinion, accepting doesn't prohibit or stifle growth, it actually fosters it.  "Accepting people as they are has the miraculous affect of helping them improve" (Marianne Williamson, Return To Love, p. 162).  In fact, this kind of acceptance is the most divine act we can engage in.  That's what Paul was saying earlier - God knows us completely - and as the next verse says, God loves us just as completely.  "13 Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love."  (1 Corinthians 13)

The power of divine grace is that God considers us perfectly acceptable every step along the way of our journey into greater wholeness and maturity and development (take a look at one of my favorite bible texts, Hebrews 10:14):  Perfectly acceptable to God while we're in the process of becoming more and more whole.

That attitude of profound acceptance toward us is what empowers us with the courage to continue the journey of growth, to keep learning and struggling and becoming, to changing the lens so that we see ourselves-others-and God more clearly and perfectly, to being courageous enough to let go of the old stories we almost immediately tell ourselves when something negative happens to us, to changing our "childish" thoughts into more mature and loving ones.   We end up showing up with way more love in all our relationships and life experiences.

Personal growth necessitates personal patience and profound acceptance.

My forty-six client sessions have been such an amazing learning experience for me.  My client is not at the same place where he was a year ago.  His old paralyzing stories - his cloudy mirror - are changing and being replaced with the truth about himself and the promise of his profound potential.  There is tremendous value in allowing someone else into your life for such a long, specifically directed period of time.  That's the power of having a coach or other trusted person to help guide the journey.

And the journey has helped to change me, too.  Forty-six sessions!