My wife couldn’t believe I was doing it.

My kids weren’t sure it was the same dad that came home with their mom as the one who left.

This is something that’s pretty much outside my usual range of behavior. There’s nothing remotely edgy about me. And yet if you were to look at my forearm, on the inside, just below my elbow pit, you would see the source of my wife’s disbelief, my kids’ confusion, and hard evidence that even a straight laced fella like me can push the envelope a bit.

I got a tattoo.

Yes, it hurt. No, it’s not totally healed up. It’s like my skin knew this was unlike me and is punishing me by remaining red and not looking so great. Or maybe God, furious that I have disobeyed his Old Testament command, is teaching me a lesson for my rebellion. Either way, I don’t have a cool picture to show. What I can do is tell you about the experience.

Our group traveling to the Holy Land had the option of getting a tattoo, commemorating our journey as pilgrims. Since the Middle Ages, Christians visiting Jerusalem have had themselves branded with the Jerusalem cross. Even before this, in Coptic traditions, believers got a similar mark on their wrist indicating that they followed Jesus.

If ever I was going to get a tattoo, it was participating in this same ritual.

So there I was at 10PM in a hotel conference room, in Jerusalem, with an incredible tattoo artist passing out tats to our group like Halloween candy. We lined up with our shekels and gave him permission to plunge his needle into our flesh, marking us as pilgrims.

The guy making all the money off the experience-thirsty tourists was a cool story all by himself. His family has been giving out these tattoos for over 700 years. First in Egypt with the Copts, then in Jerusalem with pilgrims, Razzouk Tattoo is a family business. Wassim Razzouk wasn’t sure what to make of me, what with my squirming and flinching, but he dutifully did his thing on my arm.

I got the tattoo in white ink. I told myself it was trendy, but really I just didn’t want it to look like I had a tattoo. Pointless, you ask? Perhaps. But this really was for me. This was a reminder for self, not something to show off to others. I got branded with the mark of a pilgrim because a pilgrim is what I am. Not just to Jerusalem — my whole life is a journey toward Jesus. Hopefully this pilgrim is making progress, all respect and deference due to John Bunyan.

This was more than a trip or vacation or time off for me — it was a pilgrimage. In the fullest, richest sense of that phrase, I got to see and experience the land of the Bible in a beautiful way. I’ve written about some of these fascinating moments elsewhere, including our visit to the Palestinian city of Nablus, the joy of sharing these moments with my bride, and the beauty and holiness of the Sea of Galilee.

It was a life changing journey, this pilgrimage. So yes, I had ink embedded in my skin, just like millions of pilgrims before me. It’s a reminder that I’ve had a wild ride, but the journey is not over.

And I guess in some ways my kids were right.

It was not the same dad who returned from Jerusalem that left to go there. I am different in some way, even if in ways I cannot articulate. And if I should ever start to forget, I’ve got a reminder etched into my skin — a reminder of where I’ve been, where I’m going, and Who has been with me all along.

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