Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why I secretly like the smell of cigarette smoke.

This is not very logical: I'm blogging. It is a swirling blend of experiences that involve faith, evangelism, and cigarette smoke. I make no apologies for the lack of cohesive argument. This is my blog - take it or leave it.

Respectable church people who have grown up in Christian homes don't smoke cigarettes. Neither do the elites of our culture who are convinced that they live superior, healthy, socially and environmentally responsible lives.

The times in my life when I am around smokers are generally the times when I have befriended someone who lives in a setting that's anything but Christian. When they come to church or to hang out with other Christians, they are a bit self-conscious about taking their smoke breaks. But when I visit with them and just hang out while they smoke, they tend to be pretty frank about life. This allows me to be frank about how Christ can make a difference in their lives.

The basic idea is this: if I'm around Christians all the time, I don't smell cigarette smoke that much. But when I connect with the lost and spend meaningful time with them, I frequently end up inhaling some carcinogens. You could say it's an occupational hazard of evangelism.

It puzzled me a bit when I attended a baptism service once where the presiding pastor asked for members of the congregation to give testimony about how they had seen the lives of the couple change. They had become Christians several months before, and been undergoing discipleship in the church. Several people mentioned excitedly the fact that both of the new Christians had stopped smoking. I felt awkward that this was being focused on as the fruit of their salvation. I inwardly squirmed, wishing I knew more about their lives so that I could mention some behavior actually mentioned in the Bible that had changed. Finally someone commended them for the love expressed in their family, and I felt a little better. But it seemed to me like an adventure in incidentalism (the degenerated form of the former glory of Fundamentalism.

Smoking seems to me a very foolish choice. Why kill yourself slowly and cause breathing problems? My Grandpa's slow death from lung cancer was not fun to watch. But shouldn't our focus be a little stronger on things like sexual immorality, anger issues, drunkenness, and other Biblical sins? When I have repeatedly heard people outside the church mention smoking as the sin they most need to change in their lives, I scratch my head and wonder whether this is their own assumption or one the church has communicated...

I once visited with a man who, after his release from prison, was gaining a new level of interest in spiritual things. He was between cigarettes at this point, so we were inside my house with only a faint trace of the smell. He told me a few nights before he hadn't been able to sleep, so he got up, poured a glass of wine ("just a small one"), and read 1 Peter. "Man, Nate," he exclaimed, "that book is some good s***!" Not quite the way I would have said it, but we read through the book again that night and he kept asking me to explain things to him, getting more and more excited. Then he said, "Let's go outside, I need to smoke." So the conversation moved. Somehow I felt like I was on the frontlines of ministry for life change at that moment. I'm not sure that his life changed as much as I wished. But cigarette smoke whispers to me of that moment, when this dear man was aware, if only briefly, of the power and grace of God that was available to him.

Respectable Christians don't smoke cigarettes. That's probably a good thing. But maybe sometimes they should smell like cigarette smoke.

In Romans 15:20-21, Paul says that his ambition is to preach the gospel "not where Christ has already been named,...but as it is written,
Those who have never been told of him will see,
And those who have never heard will understand."

I'm miles away from unreached people groups in the true sense of the word: cultures that have no gospel witness or knowledge of God's special revelation. But the fact is we all pass within miles, yards, or feet of people who run in entirely non-Christian circles: little sub-cultures of unreached people who need Jesus' love so much. I think of my friend Mike, who signs about the love of God to deaf teens who have no other Christian witness in their lives. I think of Kevin Klas talking after an ultimate frisbee game with the hippie college students he played with. I think of Austin and Heather knocking on their neighbors doors with homemade food in hand. I think of the middle schooler whose dad warns him not to bring home Campus Life flyers and takes him to native american spiritual ceremonies instead. People right under our noses.

Be careful, guys: when someone smokes next to you, it's like you smoking half a cigarette because of the secondhand smoke. But I think it's worth the risk. In some cases, it's the smell of effectiveness.

I secretly like it...


Sabrina said...

Nice disclaimer.

I often wonder how many people are actually aware of the fact that smoking cigarettes is not mentioned in the Bible.

faithbornfromdoubt said...

Your emphasis upon sins "mentioned in the Bible" was very baptist of you Nate!

Nice post. Not only do I share your sentiments, I enjoyed reading them.

Now freaking post something I disagree with!!!

Mike said...

I think you missed something. I have found that respectable Christians can smoke pipes, but only if they are dead British authors.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Nate. It's an encouragement to keep doing ministry with them cigarette-smoking neighbors. :o)

Austin said...

Great post, Nate. Pardon my tardiness.
Rob Bell championed the phrase, "May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi Jesus."
You have said, in essence, "May we be covered in the cigarette smoke of the unsaved. Well done!