It’s August 30th, and my best friend is driving me to a tattoo shop across town so she can hold my hand as I get the word “follow” permanently stamped on my right foot.
“Hey, this is the same place Steven went to get that bear tattoo! You know, the one wearing the suit? I wonder if you’re going to the same guy,” she says with a light-hearted laugh as we turn into the parking lot. I laugh too, partly because it would be a funny coincidence, but mostly because I’m trying not to picture a giant animal taking permanent residence on my foot. This could be a very, very big mistake.
We’re told to sit in the waiting area that consists of two leather couches, a desk, and a television playing absolutely nothing. So much for distraction. I look at my best friend with “this-is-a-mistake-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life-why-did-you-bring-me-here” eyes, and she responds with, “You’re getting a tattoo! This is so fun!” Yeah. It’s fun to pay someone to repeatedly stab you with needles so you can wake up tomorrow, look at your “awesome idea”, and say “You’re right, Mom and Dad, I regret everything.” I resolve to leave if he doesn’t come soon when – “By the beard of Zeus!” – he’s arrived.
By some luckily miracle I decide I probably shouldn’t say these words out loud, but I’m certainly thinking them as I take note of his super cool man-beard. If he didn’t have a million tattoos, he could be a dwarf in Lord of the Rings. I decide not to say this aloud, either.
We exchange an awkward greeting, and I hand him a rough sketch of the design I want. As he examines it, I say something mean and intimidating like, “It better be like this or else…” Then he disappears to who knows where to do who knows what (probably tremble in fear at my threats), leaving me to wonder why I ever wanted this in the first place – and how long it would take me to reach the door.
Confession time: I used to have a little angry person living inside of me who thought words like “follow” and “submit” and “obey” were signs of weakness and should be banned from all friendly conversation. Even now, I think they can be grossly misinterpreted and should be treated carefully, especially when discussing gender roles. So why on earth would I choose to grace my perfectly good foot with a dangerous word like that? Partly because of swing dancing.
See in swing dancing, there are leads and follows. Typically, guys are the leads and girls are the follows, and the lead’s job is to direct their partners where to go during the dance. Under-arm turns, spin-outs, dips, etc. only happen because the lead is “telling” the follow where to go using different physical signals. If a lead doesn’t do a good job communicating or the follow doesn’t do a good job receiving his instructions, it doesn’t work.
It took me a long time to understand how to follow. A lot of us girls do this thing called “back-leading” – meaning that instead of receiving instructions, we give them. And we’re subtle about it; we might tense up when he tells us to move to the right or decide it’s time to turn when he told us to rock-step. I back-led a lot in the beginning (and still do sometimes) because honestly, it’s easier. Taking control of the dance is easier than trusting the guy knows what he’s doing. Doing your own thing is easier than making the effort to “listen” to what he’s saying. But, and here’s the catch, doing your own thing also makes for a really bad dance.
The first time I followed someone’s lead was fun. It was like this alarm went off in my head, “This! This is dancing! Don’t you dare mess this up because this is awesome,” and I didn’t, for the most part. When he shifted his weight to the right, I stepped to the right, and when he lifted his arm, I spun underneath it. It was during that dance in the middle of a coffee shop in California that I finally saw what dancing was: a conversation that required no words to be beautiful. And I wanted to keep talking.
Cut to the little angry version of myself who is having a hard time in church when she hears Jesus say things like, “Follow me,” because again, there’s that annoying word that implies weakness. “That’s it?” I thought, “We’re just supposed to follow you, no questions asked? Isn’t that…passive?”
Then came the moment when I told my British theatre professor (easily the most terrifying person I’d ever met) that I wasn’t going to get in front of the entire class and act out a dirty joke like he’d assigned us to do because I was a follower of Jesus and that just didn’t sound like something Jesus would do. That was anything but passive (he turned out to be a really cool guy by the way, but that’s another story).
Then there was the time I chose to forgive, fully aware the hurt that had been inflicted was all too real and would most likely stay with me forever. And the time I apologized first, even as every ounce of my being screamed at me to walk out the door and hang on to my pride. And the time I confronted someone instead of talking behind their back, and the time I told someone the truth instead of what they wanted to hear, and the time I showed up when I wanted to quit, and – the most challenging one for me at the moment – the time I said, “Okay God,” when he told me to leave everything and everyone I love and move to the other side of the planet to tell other people about him.
Why do those things? Because Jesus said, “Follow me,” and those are the kinds of difficult, crazy, stupid hard things he did. I know they’re difficult because I’ve done the opposite (more times than I can count), and the opposite is a million times easier. But, and here’s the catch, doing the opposite also makes for a pretty terrible life.
My roommate is brilliant. She reads the Bible in Greek every morning and is “working on Hebrew and Aramaic” (which is code for she’s awesome at Hebrew and Aramaic). The other day she told me the Greek word Jesus used when he called his disciples to follow him was “akoloutheo.” Aside from sounding cool, the word has an incredible connotation. As she puts it, it has to do with “a relationship, like going along a path together,” which means when Jesus said “follow me” he was really calling people into relationship.
It makes sense. In dancing, following takes grit and courage; in faith, it takes even more. The result in both contexts is conversation and relationship – and in the context of following Jesus, walking along a path with someone who loves you so much he made you. Not a bad trade off, if you ask me.
Back in the waiting room, Zeus has come to collect us. Turns out he was drawing up a much cleaner sketch of my design, and it actually looks pretty neat. He brings us to his “office” and directs me to a chair that looks like the kind you get your teeth cleaned in (way to make me feel at ease, amigo). After another 20 minutes of making sure the design is exactly right, he asks, “Are you ready?” I know he’s asking if I am ready for him to start injecting ink into my skin, but all I hear is, “Are you ready to follow Jesus to the other side of the world and tell people how much he loves them?” Weird. How’d he know I was moving to Asia?
I’m gonna ask you about your telepathic powers later, Zeus. For now, I sure would appreciate if you turned the music up. I’ve been itchin’ to dance all day.