Tattoo Of Grace
I will never forget my first day at Family of God. The little church on the corner of Sharon and Vernor as it was known to many. It was the day that God confirmed where He wanted me to be for the next stage of my life. A day that broke my heart for Southwest Detroit. A day that changed my life forever.
The church is not always extravagant in appearance. A small storefront with bars on the windows, paint chipping off the dented steel door, coffee-stained carpet, and a variety of metal folding chairs. Smells of Jack Daniels, urine, body odor, and stale cigarettes carelessly floated through the air. Everyone took their places for announcements. Pastor Jim introduced the service and proceeded with the invocation. Welcome, Holy Spirit.
As we sang “Create In Me A Clean Heart,” a song that would become a staple in the lives of this congregation, a young man walked through the door and made his way to the back of the room where he sat, holding his coffee.
I have described this young man before: sunken face, dilated pupils, and hardly able to string together two sentences. At the time Jon weighed about 145 pounds soaking wet. He had been in terrible living situation and when he was asked not to be apart of a woman’s life and a girl that he thought was his daughter, he hit the streets. He was officially at rock bottom. Until he found out that “rock bottom” can go even further. He picked up a needle and began using heroin, causing what was left of his life to spin violently out of control.
Over the course of his “messing up” as he called it, he would dumpster dive for whatever he could find. He would stay in the abandoned, burned-out apartment building across the street from our little church. A building where a twelve-year old boy was shot and killed for the sake of the drug game. One night he happened to stumble upon one of those old apartments and, desperate for food, he stole a fellow addict’s can of peaches. This led to a confrontation, in which the other addict said to Jon, “Dude, just go to the church across the street.” This was where he had gotten his food from in the first place.
So, Jon returned to the church. I would see him from time to time, even loaning him one of my sweatshirts. It seemed to be the same routine for him, as it was for many men and women who walked through the doors of Family of God: Come in, have a seat, get some coffee, load it with sugar, nod off a bit with coffee dripping onto the floor. Be woken up by a friend for dinner, stand in the line chatting with other neighborhood warriors, eat, thank the group that served, and walk back out the door for battle. One day, Jon left the church, and I wouldn’t see him for years.
Typically, when a man or woman disappears from church, it means one of three things: they have died, they have gone to prison, or they have left the neighborhood. For Jon it could have easily been either of these. I wasn’t sure.
But God was writing a beautiful story that was unfolding before our very eyes, crossing the T’s with grace, dotting the I’s with redemption.
Jon had walked out of my life, popping in once or twice over the next seven years. One of those times was to be married to the love of his life, a true prodigal son story. But it gets even better. God likes to write stories about great reversals.
Last week, I visited Jon again. Although, this time it wasn’t a formality. It wasn’t to give him a meal or a sweatshirt. It was to see him at work. Jon works at Premier Tattoo Company in Allen Park. He just won 2nd place in the Tattoo City Convention in Flint for neck and hand tattoos. He has a customer base that love his work. He has become one of the premier tattoo artists in Southeastern Michigan. God has taken the needle, which Jon used to use for evil, and is now using it for good.
I sat in the chair and we reminisced for hours about his time in Southwest Detroit. How he was baptized and attended St. Stephen, the church where I, along with Pastor Hill, now serve. Jon was psyched to hear that. We laughed has he told me that he has put on 70 pounds in his recovery and how much he missed his old bike. He asked about different people from the neighborhood, men and women that he knew from his time in the streets. He told me about his family. His wife Krystal, his two boys, Jon Junior and baby Blake. About the loss of his baby girl, Annabelle, with which we talked about pain, struggle, and God’s grace. He talked about how grateful he was for the church that was there for him in his time of need.
"I am crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20)."
Pastor Jim has hammered me over the head with this Bible verse for years. I have learned what it means to be crucified with Jesus because of him. I have learned to suffer and I have learned to endure suffering with him in my time at Family of God. I have learned that suffering isn’t bad (yes, suffering sucks), but a badge of honor, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say. It is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance with Jesus.
Jon, a man who has known more suffering than most people should, pens this line on my forearm. The words in Pastor Jim’s handwriting, the verse in Jon’s. The image that he brands me with is the image of Jesus on the cross, the same image that begs for my attention whenever I walk into and leave the Family of God, where Jon heard the Gospel and was safe. Jesus, my Lord and my God who chooses to suffer for me, is about to be crucified and endure more suffering than me or Jon could ever imagine. Because of me, yet he does it for me.
Jon knows these truths. I know these truths. I hope and pray that you know these truths. That no matter how far you have fallen, how broken you feel, how dead you may be, Jesus has come for you. Jesus has rescued you. Jesus takes our hearts of stone and gives us new life because our old selves have been crucified with Christ. And if we are united in a death like his then we will surely be united in a resurrection like his.
This tattoo of mine is beautiful. It bears the mark of a story of grace. Not just for Jon in his story, but for me as well. As Christ is tattooed with scars that he willingly takes so that I might live with him, he bleeds and covers us in righteousness.
The battle is won. For Jon, for me, for you.
I am crucified with Christ. Praise Him for that.