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November 26, 2014
Tune My Heart
Skin Deep
by Marian Stoddard

A few weeks ago I sat in sacrament meeting and watched a scene on the other side of the aisle, two rows ahead. A dad had his little daughter up on his shoulder, jiggling her gently, patting her back as needed, while he listened, rapt, to the speaker.

The baby is eight months old, and a tiny little thing. Her mama calls her “Bird.” Her mother was home this particular day, not feeling well, and daddy brought the little one to church with him in order to give his wife a better chance to rest.

She was wide awake, bright-eyed and fastened on the adults nearby. She wasn’t fussing, and it didn’t take much to keep her quiet, just a bit of motion and a bit of attention. He nuzzled her cheek and ear from time to time, still soaking in the words from the pulpit as he gave her the barest whispers; and she was cooperative enough that this was all she needed.

It was a sweet moment and unremarkable — except for the story behind the scene.

Jake, the father, (not his real name) had a long road leading to this place. His left arm, now on the aisle, propped on the arm of the pew, was covered in tattoos from his hand to his shoulder and all the way up his neck onto his scalp, visible through his crew-cut. He has small tattoos across his knuckles as well.

Somewhere along the way before his childhood filled up with upheaval, foster care, and instability, he had been baptized into the Church, but things unraveled and he was sucked away into trouble and addiction. His life wasn’t exactly a straight shot in righteous living as we would hope for it.

To support his drug habit, he had robbed a store and served time. He had later met up with a young woman who had a similar story.

When they moved to this area, he called our bishop, looking for the Church. He was clean and sober, with the girlfriend, and looking for help to make a better life. They started coming to church. They had a baby on the way and got married.

Change didn’t happen in an instant — it almost never does. A profound experience with the Spirit, a transformation of desire — those may happen in an instant, but then you have to continue to make the choices and get through the struggles that arise out of that opened door. The bishop offered counsel, temporal assistance, and encouragement, and the ward offered welcome.

A fiftyish couple mentored and shepherded them, and cared. Members advocated for them until someone would take a chance and give them a rental contract, because this little family of three was living in a motel room. Jake found some work, another miracle because of his felony record.

All of this allowed the Holy Ghost to bring its influence into their lives, and allowed the blessings of the gospel to become real to them. There were real people to love and accept them. Our bishop (just released) liked to say that the Church is in the redemption business, and he saw an honest desire in this couple to learn how to live a better life; so he did all he could to bring them along.

The first time Jake was asked to offer the benediction for sacrament meeting, he came to the pulpit and offered a simple prayer, with an open heart, that added to the spirit we all felt. When he had an opportunity to go to the temple for the first time, on a ward trip, and do baptisms for the dead, his joy radiated all the way home. He had let the Lord create in him a new heart.

Last month at stake conference Jake’s name was presented to be made an elder, and he was ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood; now his records have been sent along with them to a neighboring ward. We hope they take good care of this new family.

I watched him that Sunday morning with his little daughter, seeing the tattoos, seeing his care of her and his attention to the words of the speaker, and I thought how once upon a time those tattoos might have defined his life. Now it is the Spirit that has sunk into his heart that defines him. It shines in his ready smile. Now the rest of it is just skin.

Whether it’s ink, or the smell of cigarette smoke, or something else, the places we’ve been may be apparent to others, but none of us is without some story of struggle. If all of our history was instantly visible to everyone else, we might all shy away from each other. It’s a good thing we usually can’t tell.

Alma said, “Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you. Yea, he saith: Come unto me and ye shall partake of the fruit of the tree of life; yea, ye shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters of life freely….Behold, I say unto you, that the good shepherd doth call you.” (Alma 5:33-34, 38a)

Wherever he calls us from, what matters is that we hear and let Him gather us in.

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