Tattoos on the Heart: Review

(note: this was written for the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference’s young adult resource magazine Shift)

So there I was, hanging out at the gift shop of Homegirl Cafe, when a heavily inked man, twice my size comes up to me with the warmest smile, holding a copy of Tattoos on the Heart.

“Bro, you should buy this,” he says through an infectious smile.

“I already have a copy.” I replied, sheepishly.

“You read it, yet?”

“Not yet. But it’s sitting on my stack of books to read.”

“You gotta read this. Now.”

“No, yea. I’ll read it real soon.”

“You should. It’s real good. Promise.”

If it was not for his gentle nudging and the urging of my wife (who works with the California prisons through her non-profit organization, The Center for Restorative Justice Works), the book would probably still be somewhere in the tower of books to read.

Gregory Boyle, or “G” as the homies call him, shares stories of the people in his life about their struggles, failures, triumphs, and redemption. He tells his stories straight forward with language that may be NSFC-E (never safe for church–ever)

In one story, G shares about La Shady, a female gang member. Her man and baby’s father was killed in a fight with a rival gang. G was on his way to set up a peace treaty between female members of her gang and the gang that killed her man when she comes up to his car, holding her baby daughter in her arms and telling him about a dream she had. In her dream, she is in G’s church and sees him standing next to a tiny baby’s coffin. G is beckoning her to come closer so she wearily approaches the coffin. She finally reaches the casket and before she can get a full view of the casket, a dove flies out of the casket, circles the insides of the church and finally finds its resting spot on Shady’s shoulder. Then she wakes up.

“What’s it mean, G?” She asks.

“Well, everyone knows that the white dove stands for peace. And so God is asking you to move toward forgiveness and healing and peace. And everything’s going to be fine,” G explained, taking advantage of this moment. “But here’s the only thing that matters, kiddo. How did the dream make you feel?”

She began to cry and explained that at first, she was scared because she thought the casket might be her daughter’s. But once she saw the dove, “I only felt peace and love in my heart.”

“God only wants you to feel those things, mijita– love in your heart… peace. You’re okay.”

Perhaps this conversation would be a turning point for Shady where she realizes a real possibility of forgiveness within her, a possibility of peace and grace, and more importantly a possibility of a real future for her and her daughter. We never know because the midnight following that conversation:

Shady is crammed into the middle seat in the back of a car filled with gang members. They’ve driven well out of her barrio, and the guys in the car are from a neighborhood not her own. They drive, and hand signs get thrown out the window at rivals standing on some street corner. The corner guys yell and scream all manner of foulness at the car, and Shady and the gang squealrubber out of there, laughing. Not a block away, a corner vato finds his gun. Shady slumps in the backseat. Only one bullet entered the car that night, and it happened to find the back of Shady’shead.

This story stuck out for me. Perhaps because the reader will never know how Shady’s journey would have played out. Or perhaps because Jennifer, Shady’s daughter, is now without her mom and dad. The story is evidence of how dangerous and short the gangster life can be. It is possible Jennifer may end up being a gang member like her parents. No one may be around to show her a different way of living; no one may be around to invest in her, to show her the image of God that she was created in, because there are more people who are afraid and prefer to keep a good distance from everyone involved in this lifestyle than there are people like G, who lives in the very community he wants to transform with the message of the Gospel.

The book is filled with compelling stories that draw out various emotions. G’s experiences show that these people are just that, people; people who have emotions, hopes, and dreams. He illuminates the humanity of people many may have discarded as “animals.”

There is a story about Chico and how the emotions of burying Chico, G’s eighth person in three weeks, was finally getting to him. He is crying underneath a tree near the burial site when the mortician unknowingly intrudes on his sacred moment. To break the silence, G whispers to his intruder, “Now that was a terrific kid.”

And, “In a voice so loud and obnoxious that it turns the heads of all the gathered mourners, [the mortician] says, ‘HE WAS?'”

Many of us may find ourselves in the shoes of the mortician. How can someone “good” live a gang banging life? But Christ did. He sees the heart of the people. He did not see prostitutes, degenerates, tax collectors, sinners, lepers– no, he saw children of God and had compassion on the people he was walking with, even those who would later crucify him.

As Christ followers, we are called to show the kind of boundless compassion G describes as, “A compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

Discussion Questions:

How do you define/view “compassion?” How does your definition of “compassion” compare to the compassion that Jesus embodied?

The Dolores Mission Church, the parish that G serves, is a part of the community. The neighborhood knows that G is the priest. G, his parish and Homeboy Industries are working hard to transform their neighborhood and the lives that live within it. The people of that community know who G is and know where they can run to in time of need. What is the relationship between your neighborhood and your church? What are the ways that your church is engaged in transforming the community with the irresistible and powerful message of God’s love? If your church were to close its doors, what affect, if any, would it have in your community?

A Blueprint for Discipleship

Yesterday, I finally finished reading Kevin Watson’s A Blueprint for Discipleship.
Kevin and I attended seminary together. The one outstanding memory I have of Kevin is the fact that I lost a bet to him regarding his beloved Houston Astros (Go Red Sox!).

I don’t think this book could have come at a better time for me. I have been wrestling with a lot of things that do not make sense for me about the UMC and the whole ordination process. The book just reaffirmed why I am going through this ordination process as a United Methodist.

Kevin writes in his opening chapter that the churches have been “watering down the expectations that come with being a disciple of Jesus Christ” and I couldn’t agree with him more. In the Bible, many people were shocked at the commitment that Jesus wanted, and they walked away from him. But today, it seems like the word ‘disciple’ is non-existent in the average church.
Kevin writes that the survival mentality that many of our churches have cannot be what God desires. Instead, we should “choose to live, not by our own power, but by stubbornly deciding to depend on God’s grace.” I begin to think what would a church look like that stubbornly depended on God.

While I enjoyed the entire book, I think the last 4 chapters spoke to me the most. The 6th chapter begins with the 3rd General rule: to practice the ordinances of God.
I think when it comes to practicing the Christian disciplines, many Christians take on the Allen Iverson stance. “Practice? We’re talking practice! Not a game. We’re talking about practice! How silly is that?”
Kevin goes through what the ordinances of God are: public worship; ministry of the Word;  Lord’s Supper; prayer; reading scripture; and fasting or abstinence.

It’s saddening to say, that from my (limited) experience, that we aren’t doing as well as we should be in the ordinances of God.
Worship isn’t held as highly as it should be. Worship service becomes more about us than about God. Often times, Sundays are like having our cars serviced and then going our own way afterward, thankful that our car works, which is strikingly different from what Wesley had in mind. “The early Methodists did not allow people who routinely neglected to come to worship to call themselves Methodists.” How different would all of our churches look if we still held that standard?
Kevin also tells us that “Methodists were known for being particularly bold in their public proclamation of the gospel.” And I ask, what happened to that?
The most frustrating thing that I see in our UM churches is the lax view of reading the scripture and praying. Again, I remind you, this is just from my limited experience. Kevin writes why these are important parts of our spiritual lives. I fully agree with him when he says that we say these practices are important, but “saying that it is important and actually doing it can be very different things.”

I really appreciated the next chapter: Finding the Balance. Kevin’s balance points were Faith and Works; Personal Piety and Social Actions; and  Love of God and Love of neighbor, and we Methodists are at our best, these three balance points are evident.

Kevin argues “small-group accountability is the thread that ties all the pieces of Wesleyan discipleship together.” I couldn’t agree with him more. All the growing non-denominational churches seem to have a strong small group ministry that they implement. In all honesty, it seems like a lot of those mega-churches implement Wesleyan ideas, or things that John Wesley viewed important.
Why then, as UM churches, do we not implement the very things Wesley argued for?
And why do we allow committee meetings to take precedence over small group/class meetings?

Kevin ends the book with a hope that we will be awakened and that we will repent for often settling “for a weak God.” He hopes that we “can turn away from nominal Christianity, humble ourselves and return to the method behind Methodism.”

This book reminded me why our denomination and our view on scripture is unique and needed in this world. Kevin reaffirmed my call into the United Methodist denomination and reminded me that, yes, there is still hope for us and not all is lost (which is something that crossed my mind more often than I liked)
What I really want to do, is have a small group discussion about this book. I think this book can really help churches look beyond being Christians and focus on being disciples, and if anything, it can start dialogues and discussions in our churches about the blueprint for discipleship and get our members (re)acquainted with the General Rules.
I believe this book and the questions that are at the end of each chapter can really challenge our churches to “return to the method behind Methodism” which will find us going towards God and find our way home. “Finding our home with God is, after all, what the Wesleyan blueprint for disciple is all about.”