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Unlikely Teachers of Spirituality: Smoking

May 19, 2012 1 comment

When I was young and growing up, I used to think smoking was sinful. I don’t know if it was my church environment or social environment, but somehow I thought that it was a sin to smoke. When I was 17, found Jesus, and started reading Scripture, I realized my perspective was pretty delusional. So, when I turned 18, I bought a pipe and tobacco and started smoking. I have thoroughly enjoyed smoking ever since (even though at times I’ve gone years without doing so at all). Smoking has taught me a few things.

One of the most powerful lessons smoking has helped me learn is sometimes I need to take a brief break. When I am alone, I can be a high anxiety person. It’s very easy for me to worry about finances, relationships, work I need to do, God’s will, my past sins, my past, my future, my present, my safety, others’ safety, the world, helplessness, weakness, fruitlessness, inadequacy, how the paper I’m writing is going, whether I’m going to get enough sleep, etc. My brain gets cluttered a lot too. There are too many things going on in my head sometimes for me to handle. I won’t bore you with another list, but I sometimes have so many different topics going through my head at once I think I’m going crazy.* For a long time the only way I knew how to handle my anxiety and overactive mind was to just keep going and wait until it went away. Smoking taught me a much better solution.

When I started smoking on a semi-regular basis (a couple of packs a week was probably my max), when I was feeling high anxiety or was thinking about so much I couldn’t productively think about anything, I would go outside for a smoke. After doing so, I would be calm, collected, and focused. I don’t think it was the nicotine that did this. Smoking provided an alternative activity from whatever I was doing, it helped me escape from my life and mind temporarily so that I could come back to my life and mind in a better condition to do so. During my cigarette, I would simply pray and bring my troubles before God, ask him to deal with them, then recenter on Him, His kingdom, what is really important, and what matters in light of the truth that God is king. When I would re-enter the reality of my circumstances, I was much more ready to deal with those circumstances like a new creation should.

Smoking has helped me converse with people. Many conversations with people I’ve never met have sprung up over cigarettes. It’s more comfortable to talk to people you don’t know when you’re both smoking because you both have an alternate activity and if the conversation is awkward, it only has to last a couple of minutes because there is an easy out. I’ve shared about who God is and my relationship with Jesus with more people who do not yet know him while smoking than in any other circumstance. Smoking can create a space for conversation that is inviting and unintimidating.

Smoking helps me learn the art of being with someone without talking to them. Sometimes, when people are tired of life, broken in spirit, and hopeless in heart, there just isn’t much to say. There aren’t any right questions to ask. They know the truth, they just don’t feel it right now, and they need someone to be with them and be available for them, but they don’t need anyone to talk to them. Smoking provides an alternative activity which facilitates a comfortable environment to sit with someone in silence for their solace.

Things I should probably say regarding some of the things in this series…

If you’re a follower of Jesus and you’re addicted to smoking (or anything), then you’re living in chains when Jesus wants you to be free. If you’re smoking a lot and it is damaging to your health, you aren’t setting yourself up well for being at your best to serve God in the future – the same goes if you’re eating ice cream all the time or living in lethargic inactivity. If you’re having a few drinks, that’s one thing, if you’re getting drunk or going out for attention from the opposite sex, you’re misrepresenting God. The point is there are points at which these activities, like most other activities, become a detriment rather than a complement to one’s relationship with Jesus.

*I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

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Pharisaic Little Brats

December 30, 2010 6 comments

I grew up going to churches. By the time I could create memories, my parents were very involved in churches. The majority of my early childhood memories involve being at a church or church activity. I learned a lot at churches. I learned it was okay to talk about people’s sin behind their back as long as it was for prayer or for warning. I learned it was okay to evaluate someone’s spiritual maturity based upon one’s personal judgment of their actions. I learned that liberals were both terribly misguided individuals and far from God. I learned that the consumption of alcohol was a sin and a sign that someone had strayed from God. I learned that certain words regardless of social context, manner of use, and the heart behind the one using them were wrong to use at all times. The mere morphemes that the words consisted of made them sinful and the use or nonuse of these words was an indicator of one’s relationship with God. I learned that smokers were caught in sinful addiction and that they needed to confess their sin and be saved by Jesus so that they would stop their smoking.

I went to a church that accepted smokers, swearers, drinkers, and political liberals into its congregation. My church was a good church and thought of itself as a good church because it accepted people like this. We took the people other churches didn’t want, these spiritual outsiders with their filthy sinful habits, so that Jesus might reach out to them and save them. I remember people at church going outside to have a smoke, alone. I remember people talking about how now they decided to follow Jesus and quit smoking, and in the same breath subtly criticizing those who smoke as sinners precisely because they smoke. I remember one time my mother telling my father she thought she smelled alcohol on someone’s breath and I remember hearing the sincere concern both of them had that this individual had consumed alcohol.

I learned a lot of things in the church I attended, one full of people with sincere hearts, about what it meant to follow Jesus. And I became a Pharisee. I started looking down on smokers. I started thinking of liberals as idiots. I associated alcohol with sin. I assumed that any swear word in any situation was someone spitting in God’s face. I had learned the church law from my church family and I started holding myself and others to this law. Anyone who didn’t follow it was sinful and needed Jesus. I became one who had much judgment and little mercy. It is my own fault, my arrogance, and the sin within me that caused me to become Pharisaic, but I sure wish someone would have taught me what the Bible says.

I recently heard stories from loved ones about a church. The stories were related to dealing with children in the church. Some of the people who were in charge of leading the youth in the church were going to make a rule for other leaders that they couldn’t smoke if they wanted to be a spiritual leader for the youth. The concern was that parents would get the wrong idea and that the leaders should be models to imitate. I heard another story about a young girl who was confused if she should be friends with a person at school because she went to the other girl’s house and found out the father had alcohol in the basement and he drank sometimes. The girl was unsure if it was okay to even associate with someone whose parent drank alcohol. After hearing these stories, day after day I would pray and I would weep.

I was afraid they would turn out like I did. For it seems that they are being taught through example the same lies that I learned from my church. It would be better for these kids to die at 40 with lung cancer than for them to live as Pharisees, believing that their version of the law and the good news of the Messiah were equivalent. I am scared they will become like I did, thinking that the power of the Holy Spirit was given to make us better law abiders. I am frightened that these poor young ones will take the laws they learned from their church and hold others to the same traditions of men that I once held people to. I’m afraid they will learn to judge others’ relationship with God based upon a handful of taboo behaviors. I’m afraid these kids might become Pharisaic like I once was, becoming like the very people Jesus was harshest with.

If we don’t talk about the many things Scripture says implicitly about things like smoking (“Everything is permissible, but I will not be mastered by anything;” Obey the authorities not only because of fear of punishment, but because of conscience; etc.) we won’t really be teaching the next generation of Christ followers how to live as a disciple of Jesus. If we model for them that smoking is sinful, then it is likely they will judge smokers and equate the use or nonuse of tobacco as a way to gauge one’s level of obedience to Jesus. If we are treating smoking as some sign of immaturity, we’re damaging the youth by not talking about the dangers of smoking while acknowledging that through thankfulness inhaling a cigarette can be an act that glorifies Jesus.

We need to teach children that having a relationship with God is not incongruent with smoking a cigarette. We need to teach our children that the Law has died with Christ and no longer has power. We need to teach the future generations of Jesus followers that there are inherent dangers in many behaviors, but what is important is that in all things Jesus is Lord. The kingdom of God is not one of drinking or smoking, but is about something far more significant, life that is truly life. We have to stop stacking laws onto what is necessary to be justified and live righteously before God, or may we be eternally condemned. If we add Law to the good news, we destroy the good news and are left with impotent rules that cannot make anyone right before God.

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