"...to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes.”
I first learned to paint with ashes in a juvenile detention facility.
I dropped out in the 9th grade. My biological mother was trapped in the 1980’s and 90’s crack epidemic. My biological father was “unknown.” It wasn’t long before I found myself incarcerated again and again as a juvenile felon. There, I got “Thug 4 Life” tattooed on my arm. The ink was created from melted-down chess pieces. The ashes from the burnt plastic were collected and mixed with shampoo to create the makeshift ink. The artistic method of jailhouse tattooing with ashes is called “pick and poke.” It involves taking a staple, sharpening it down to a needle, and then repeatedly piercing the skin to insert the ink. This tattooing method is an artistic innovation of incarceration culture. But do not try this at home. It is dangerous and painful!
Deconstruction or Demolition?
Years later, I had a radical encounter with Jesus that turned my life right-side up and sent me on a journey toward new creation. Unfortunately, the way that initially manifested was in a kind of ultraconservative fundamentalism. I went back to the trap where I used to sell drugs, but now to pass out tracts. I was praying people through the “sinner’s prayer” and bringing them back to church. The supernatural encounter with Jesus was real, but I was young, naïve, and spiritualizing wounds that needed different forms of healing.
It wasn’t so much that I deconstructed my own faith, but rather life deconstructed it for me. It was more like a demolition actually. In my moment of greatest need, a key spiritual mentor had been abusive, and the church was nowhere to be seen. I relapsed, alone in a pit of depressions and despair. A return to incarceration was not far behind.
I think deconstructing our faith is a good, healthy thing. We can see the psalmists doing this throughout the psalter. But for me, deconstruction is more about renovating an existing house, blowing out walls and making new pathways for people to get inside. I do not agree that deconstruction should be about tearing the whole house down and starting from scratch. This is the danger I see with much of the current deconstruction movement.
We have inherited a house that has some foundational and non-negotiable architecture. Bad theology kills, it needs to be deconstructed. Scandal, abuse, and personality cults have no place in the church. A Christianity that harms, excludes, or marginalizes, cannot possibly represent Jesus of Nazareth.
And yet, we don’t get to rebuild the whole house in our image. The Wesleyan quadrilateral is helpful here: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. The house is built upon the foundation of Scripture, with walls made of church tradition, a roof of reason, and the doorways of experience. Within that architecture, there is lots of room for renovation.
Frankly, if we follow Jesus for an extended period of time, life will do most of the deconstruction work for us. I think the more challenging task is associated with the reconstruction of the faith.
After I burned my life to the ground through relapse and incarceration, only the core architecture of the house of faith remained. But from the ashes, God began to reconstruct my faith. I discovered the house was reinforced, even made stronger. I joined a group of others on a journey of reconstruction. We did the work of renovation for ourselves, rather than being indoctrinated into some existing theological paradigm created by others. I found I could read the inspired and authoritative Scriptures with soft eyes again. I could easily locate myself in God’s story. I could be comfortable with paradox. I could learn to live in the mystery.
There in the “word of God” I found the one who is the “Living Word,” Jesus, waiting to greet me. There he stood, in the ashes, a place he knew intimately well. From that place, we could walk out together hand and hand.
These words have been a comfort to me along the way, "...to bestow on them a crown of beauty, instead of ashes" (Isaiah 61:3). Ashes was a good way to describe my life at certain points. And yet here is this prophet named Isaiah telling us that God could bring beauty from a smoldering heap of ashes.
In Isaiah’s case, the people of his tribe, were literally ambling around in the dust of what once was. They were subjugated and exiled by a foreign invader. Their king watched his sons get executed—just before his eyes were plucked out—so it was the last thing he saw. Their temple was desecrated and destroyed. Yet here is this word of hope, that God can paint with ashes. It takes faith, imagination, and good old-fashioned guts to proclaim such a message of hope in the ruins of destruction. Perhaps we are in such a time again today.
The world we once knew has been laid to waste, its demise accelerated by a global pandemic. We live in the exile lands between what was and what’s coming soon. We sit in the ashes of post-Christendom, post-truth, and post-progress.
In the midst of all this we have witnessed the disintegration of church as we know it. The fastest growing demographic among emerging generations are those we categorize as “nones and dones.” Nones: people who never had a faith. Dones: people done with faith. The latter are often the result of bad Christians happening to good people.
Many describe the church not as a place where they can find healing but rather as a place of harm.
God the Cover-up Tattoo Artist
After Jesus rescued me from that life and I became an ordained pastor and later a seminary professor, I decided “Thug 4 Life” was no longer representative of my vocational dream. Laser tattoo removal is a painful and expensive procedure. It takes many treatments to fade a piece even slightly. Cover-up tattooing, however, is a whole art form in itself. In a cover-up, you incorporate the old tattoo into a new one. The previous art doesn’t go away but is integrated into the new creation.
The jailhouse "Thug 4 Life" tattoo on my arm has now been transformed into a lion and lamb portrait. The prophet Isaiah depicted the lion and the lamb as symbolic of the Messianic age and a coming peaceable kingdom (Isa 11:6). That in-breaking kingdom was embodied and inaugurated by Jesus, who is both the slain Lamb, who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29) and the triumphant resurrected Lion, who has conquered death (Rev 5:5). In the skin on my arm remains the ash of jailhouse chess pieces, remixed now as a portrait of Jesus. Something that was once a mark of fallenness has become for me a symbol of grace, restoration, and new creation.
The prophet Jeremiah received a word from the Lord down at the potter’s house. There he saw the potter working at the wheel. But the clay vessel he was forming became marred in his hand. Rather than scrapping the piece and discarding the hunk of clay, he "reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him" (Jer 18:2–6 nrsv).
This is the way God paints with ashes. God makes “all things new” by working with the existing material (Rev 21:5 nrsv), taking what’s marred and reworking it. God takes throwaways and gives them a new identity. God takes our broken house of faith, and side by side with us, renovates it. God doesn’t scrap the project and give up on us, no matter how seemingly ruined we become. By a transformative work of grace, God weaves our broken places into a beautiful mosaic. The wounds don’t go away, but they are integrated into God’s new creation. God takes the scars of our pain, and like a master cover-up tattoo artist, paints them into a masterpiece of grace.
God brings forth beauty from ashes by getting down into the grey soot of our wounds and painting our lives beautiful again. In doing so, God teaches us how to be artists of life and hope together. Painting with Ashes is an invitation for you to join a community of people learning to reconstruct a faith that works. A faith that heals. I believe Jesus desires to do this with his church.
I hope you will grab a copy of Painting with Ashes, and join us for the upcoming webinar on Wednesday, February 2nd, "Church in the Wild: How to Reach Nones and Dones." We will learn how to reconstruct our faith, and plant “churches in the wild” with the growing masses of “nones and dones.” Register for the free webinar here.