Owls and the imago dei

Photo by Kyle Berg

Photo by Kyle Berg


Last year I started, and finished, my first series on this blog. It was something of a tour through my life with the tattoos I’ve collected over the years serving as doorways to various times and places in my history. If you missed it and want to take a gander, you can start here. These images work to remind me. Remind me of the things God has done in my life, things He’s spoken, truths He’s etched into my soul more deeply than the ink in my skin. The Israelites of the Old Testament scriptures were told to erect monuments of stones in certain places when God performed a miracle of deliverance or provision for them. These monuments were reminders through the generations of God’s faithfulness. My tattoos have become my remembering stones. The little guy pictured above is the newest addition to the collection, and this is his story.

I came into the Christian faith in my teens amidst the chaos of a messy home life, semi-severe depression, and a lot of general teen angst. I had been consumed with thoughts about fate, religion, human nature, spirituality, and morality from a weirdly young age and was utterly convinced of my own propensity toward evil before I knew much of anything about Jesus or the Bible. So I wasn’t exactly a hard sell when an amazing new friend, her loving and accepting family, and a few young men trained in religious studies came into my life talking about the love and redeeming power of Jesus. All the theology and intellectualizing and other issues aside, I knew there was a darkness in and all around me. Somehow I also came to believe these good and loving people when they told me the source of their light could be mine as well.

For several years I was wrapped in the warmth of this new love, the power of God’s forgiveness, and the new families I was coming to know through my faith communities. Eventually, however, as the glow began to fade a foundational truth I’d held since I was a small child began to resurface in the quiet places of my mind. This truth was that I was somehow rotten at my core, broken beyond repair, that nothing good was inside of me. I could easily believe all the verses in the Bible that spoke of humanity’s darkness, evil, sin because these were the things I knew to be true about myself. All my good deeds were indeed like filthy rags. I felt like a step-kid in God’s family, surrounded by people who were inherently better at being His than I would ever be. I spent years just grateful to be allowed into the party, even if I was the dirty scamp hiding beneath a chair.

However, there was a thread that spun throughout these years. A contradictory truth. Something that was reflected back to me by people all the time. I’d even heard it as a child. I was often told that I had “wisdom beyond my years.” Adults would often wonder at the words I would speak, and I never really understood why. When I became a Christian and began to view the world through the faith’s lens, I found passages that spoke of God’s wisdom. A spiritual gift bestowed on some folks for the benefit of others. People receptive to truth and discernment that could be somewhat otherworldly, yet always intimately useful. I recognized in these passages the echoes of those things adults had always said to me, and I accepted as truth that I had this gift. It wasn’t that I was somehow smarted than other people, or more intuitive. God had simply given me something of Himself to share with the world – like a haunting singing voice or the ability to inspire through drawing or sculpture or a scientific mind that can birth innovation uniquely and beautifully.

So there was an eventual collision between my truths: the larger and ever-present truth that there was nothing good in me, and the sneakier but equally historical truth that I was a source of wisdom for others. If I truly believed that God fashioned me in His image, that He was stronger than evil, that even I could be redeemed, then I had to accept that there was at the very least one good thing in me. This was the beginning of my journey toward accepting goodness within, my personal reflection of the imago dei. Because I truly believe we are all made in the image of God, that we all contain grains and glimmers of His personality and essence and power and creativity and beauty. This includes the jerk who yells at me at work, the angry blogger stirring up hatred in the world, the selfish friend who consistently breaks my heart. Oh, that I had eyes to see those grains and glimmers every time I look in your eyes.

This owl tattoo reminds me that there is a grain and glimmer of the beauty and power of God residing in me, an aspect of Jesus I carry into the world. This idea of wisdom isn’t the only good in me; I know that now. But there was a time when this gift was the only good I believed I had within myself. And there are yet days when I can’t see much good in myself, when I wonder if God is wasting His time in the redemption of this broken soul. Now I only have to look over my shoulder to remember that He will never give up on me. He embedded a part of Himself in my soul because He believed I could be trusted with it.

Oh, and as for the steam punk style of the tattoo đŸ™‚ I’ve learned that wisdom isn’t some esoteric thing, a lofty bit of pithiness that is faintly inspirational but useless in the end. Wisdom is something that transcends time and culture, but directly impacts the nuts and bolts of our every day lives. While some wisdom is practical (“the borrower is the slave of the lender”), much of it may even contradict what we consider common sense (“serve one another, because the last will come first and the first will be last”). The gears and monocle and top hat are stylistic reminders that wisdom is useful, transcendent, and for everyone every day.



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