Inked: Showcasing God's Work

Tattoos were first introduced to the United States when German-born Martin Hildebrandt tattooed both Union and Confederate soldiers in their camps. Tattooing reached its “golden age” in the 1940s when sailors returned home sporting their new body art. Tattoo popularity spread to include bikers in the 1950s, hippies in the 1960s, rock stars in the 1970s and 1980s, and athletes in the 1990s. Now, tattoos have become part of the mainstream. According to the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of people born between 1961 and 1981 have at least one tattoo.

For the 60 percent who don’t have a tattoo, Josh Hamilton has done his share of picking up the slack. But long before the star outfielder for the Texas Rangers ever thought of getting the first of his twenty-six tattoos, Josh was marked by a dream to play baseball. At six years old, he was throwing a baseball at fifty miles per hour—so fast that the other parents complained that their kids were in danger of being hurt. The Tar Heel League bumped him up to his brother’s team of fifth through seventh graders.

As a teen, Josh was ranked by Baseball America among the top five high school players in the country. He was so heavily scouted that he even missed his senior prom in order to avoid any potential scandals.

At eighteen years old, just two days after his high school graduation, Josh was drafted—as the number one pick in 1999—by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The dream that had marked his early childhood was becoming a reality, and he inked a record $3.96 million signing bonus.

Showcasing Truth or Lies

In his book Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back, Josh explained that his original ink began to be smudged when he was in a major car accident in 2001, resulting in a back injury. Unable to play the sport he loved and being isolated from his family, Josh began frequenting a tattoo shop in a Tampa strip mall; it became his second home. In tattoo lingo, showcases are people who display on their bodies a lot of work from the same artist. Now, with nothing but time and money, Josh would spend hours in the chair, numbing out, letting the artist decide what he wanted to ink onto Hamilton’s body. He was fast becoming a showcase for that artist, and the marks would prove to be more than skin-deep.

Josh’s story has similarities to the story of the twelve Israelite spies. When God brought the Israelites out of slavery and was ready to bring them to the land he had promised them, Moses was instructed to select a leader from each of the twelve tribes to go and stake out the land. After forty days of exploring the land, its towns, its people, and its vegetation, they came back and reported this to Moses: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! . . . But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.”

Only Caleb said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” But the Bible says that those against Caleb spread fear throughout the Israelites, saying, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. . . . We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

Josh did what so many of us do. We imprint on our minds that we are grasshoppers. Then those around us see that ink and treat us according to the mark we’ve taken on for ourselves—that we are small, insignificant, a failure. And what does that tell people about the Artist we’re showcasing? The Bible says we are “God’s handiwork,” “the work of [his] hand,” and created  for the display of his splendor.” Do we believe that? What’s more, do we really allow it to change the way we identify ourselves? Does it challenge us to live differently, to go forth and take possession of whatever God has promised for our own lives?

Which Artist Is in Charge?

When asked to explain the meaning behind each of his twenty-six tattoos, Josh half laughs. “The truth is, most of the time I wasn’t interested in what they were putting on my body . . . the artists were in charge .” And, left in charge, what they inked included a number of demons on his body. He said that what started out as a release eventually became another master to obey.

The next few years were gouged by drug abuse, baseball suspensions, rehab stays, hospital visits, dangerous threats from drug dealers, and the heartbreak of those who loved him.

On a fateful day in October 2005, Josh woke up after a crack binge in a hot trailer surrounded by strangers. He had loaned his truck to a dealer to get more crack, but the dealer hadn’t come back. He walked trancelike down a two-lane highway and eventually found a pay phone, where he called his estranged wife, Katie, for a ride. Josh said, “I was a bad husband and a bad father, and I had no relationship with God. Baseball wasn’t even on my mind.” But on the ride home, Katie told him about a dream she had—one where God impressed upon her that He was going to bring Josh back to baseball, but that it wouldn’t be about baseball. It would be for something much bigger. Josh blew her off.

While Katie believed that God was going to bring Josh back to baseball for something bigger, she wasn’t ready to let him come home. With nowhere else to go, Josh showed up at his granny’s house. Mary Holt, who had always provided a safe haven when he was a little boy, took one look at Josh’s wrecked body and said, “I’m tired of you killing yourself. I’m tired of watching you hurt all of these people who care about you.” She took him in and forced him to rest, and for the next few months, she nourished him back to physical and emotional health. God used her as an instrument in the process of reinking the original etches that had marked the early years of Josh’s life.

It wouldn’t be easy, though; the smudges and smears of the ink he’d been showcasing were stubbornly stamped on his being.

That first week, Josh had a nightmare, which he related to an interviewer:

I was fighting the devil, an awful-looking thing. I had a stick or a bat or something, and every time I hit the devil, he’d fall and get back up. Over and over I hit him, until I was exhausted and he was still standing. I woke up in a sweat, as if I’d been truly fighting, and the terror that gripped me makes that dream feel real to this day. I’d been alone for so long, alone with the fears and emotions I worked so hard to kill. I’m not embarrassed to admit that after I woke up that night, I walked down the hall to my grandmother’s room and crawled under the covers with her.

The next night, Josh picked up a Bible at the foot of his bed and asked God for help. He came across this verse: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

“The devil stayed out of my dreams for seven months after that,” Josh said. “I stayed clean and worked hard and tried to put my marriage and my life back together.”

Grasshoppers or Conquerors?

Crediting God and Granny’s approach to rehab, Josh was sober for eight months and returned to baseball in June 2006. A few weeks later, the devil reappeared in the same old dream, but with an important difference. Josh said,

I would hit him and he would bounce back up, the ugliest and most hideous creature you could imagine. This devil seemed unbeatable; I couldn’t knock him out. But just when I felt like giving up, I felt a presence by my side. I turned my head and saw Jesus, battling alongside me. We kept fighting, and I was filled with strength. The devil didn’t stand a chance. You can doubt me, but I swear to you I dreamed it. When I woke up, I felt at peace. I wasn’t scared. To me, the lesson was obvious: Alone, I couldn’t win this battle. With Jesus, I couldn’t lose.

About 275 years after the Israelites had crossed the Jordan to claim God’s promise for them, they would again face what looked like giants. For seven years, they had been hiding in caves from the Midianites, who would invade and destroy their livestock and crops. The Bible says the Israelites finally cried out to the Lord for help and, once again, God came to their rescue. The angel of the Lord found Gideon—hiding in a winepress, threshing wheat there so the Midianites wouldn’t discover it—and said to him: “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.”

Mighty warrior? That’s not a tattoo Gideon remembered getting. He was hiding out in a winepress, for crying out loud! Even Gideon thought it was ludicrous (one might even say as ludicrous as calling a crack addict a Major League Baseball All-Star). He said, “What do you mean, God’s sending me to save Israel from the Midianites? I’m from the weakest clan and, not only that, I’m the least in my family!”

Then again, this is the same God who “calls things that don’t exist into existence.” And God used Gideon to lead just three hundred men to defeat what many scholars estimate must have been hundreds of thousands of enemy soldiers. This time, instead of doubting grasshoppers turning away from God’s plan, mighty conquerors were born of faithfulness to God’s calling.

We choose what marks are engraved on our minds. But so many of us see ourselves as grasshoppers and not as mighty warriors. Do we believe in a God who uses the unlikeliest to fulfill his mission? Do we believe that a God who used a small band of men to defeat hundreds of thousands and who brought a baseball player back from a crack addiction to the World Series can fill up the marks of our lives and turn us into showcases of God’s splendor? We allow our past experiences to create such deep grooves into our thinking, but God might yet mark our lives differently. 

Excerpted from Inked: Choosing God's Mark to Transform Your Life. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Used with permission. Download the free discussion guide below to use this book with small groups.

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