Up in Smoke
I grew up in a conservative community where we attended church each Sunday. And sometimes Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We did not play cards (except Rook), attend movies (except The Hiding Place), or yell “Shoot!” (except during church basketball games).
I almost feel guilty mentioning it, but I had a great deal of fun growing up this way. Oh sure, there were negative side effects. For instance, there was the memory loss. And there was, uh…I can’t remember the other thing. Seriously, certain side effects do linger. For one thing, I grew up believing God wanted me miserable. Don’t ask me why. I guess I saw it in the faces of those who came to church looking like breakfast was a bowl of lemons with vinegar on the side. God’s will for my life, I thought, included serving Him in the remotest part of India married to the girl who sat at the front of our class squealing on everyone. And so I decided to pursue adventure elsewhere.
You didn’t have to look far in those days. For a mischievous Fundagelical child, it only took a spark to get a scandal going.
When I was ten, I invented recycling. I know it sounds improbable, but it’s true. One August afternoon, a friend and I took a garbage bag to our town’s main street and placed in it every cigarette butt we could find. Loudly we said, “Boy are these ever disgusting. Can you believe people actually smoke these things?” And passersby nodded their approval. Such good children. There is hope for the next generation after all.
We smiled and thanked them for their comments. Then we carried the garbage bag to our fort in the woods. And we recycled those cigarettes. Every last one of them. Right down to the filters. In fact, we recycled pretty much anything we could get our lips around that summer. Tea leaves. Pencil shavings. Cinnamon. Cardboard. You name it, we sat in the weeds and inhaled it.
One fine Wednesday our dreams came true. Discarded in a deserted ditch was the desire of our hearts: a pack of Player’s Filter Tip, unopened and beckoning. Stripping the plastic off, we divided the pack evenly. Ten apiece. And we sat in the tall weeds inhaling every last one of them. Right down to the filters.
After staggering back to the non-smoking zone, my friend was caught yellow-handed by his mother. But I was older. I was wiser. I knew that as ye smoke, so shall ye reek. Plus my brother Tim had told me the punishment for smoking in our community: “They cut your lips off.” So I slipped silently up to our medicine cabinet and found a can of spray deodorant. I finished it. Then I pulled out a full tube of toothpaste. I finished that too. Finally I was able to approach my parents.
“My, you smell nice, Son.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you very much.”
And that night I crawled into bed, a satisfied smile stuck to my face. No one will ever know.
My mother entered the room then and sat on my bed, sniffing. “How did it taste?” she asked. “Uh…supper? Very good Mom. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
“When I was a little girl,” she continued, “Grandpa let me smoke his pipe. I didn’t much like it, how about you?”
I was shocked. I stuck out my lips, because I knew the punishment. She could have cut them off. Or preached to me. Or quoted Scripture. She could have reminded me that no amount of toothpaste or deodorant will cover our sins. That they really will find us out. She could have reminded me that because of what Jesus did on the cross, we don’t have to hide. We can approach God, forever forgiven. Instead she leaned over and kissed me gently on the forehead.
“I’ll never smoke again,” I said. Then, “Mom, how did you know?”
“Well, Son,” she said, tucking the covers in around my shoulders, “Sometimes ten-year-old boys forget that their mothers have friends too.”
And I heard my father’s voice, coming from the bathroom. “Hey, has anyone seen the deodorant?”
Looking back on my childhood, I’m thankful for rules. I’m thankful I learned early about the seriousness of sin. But I’m glad I was shown more. I’m glad I was shown mercy.
Today I have three children of my own (who said God doesn’t have a sense of humor?) and I’m spending more time on my knees than ever before. I’m praying they will discover early that rules are necessary, that Christians are human, and that God’s will is the very best thing. I pray that they will love the Lord Jesus with everything they’ve got.
But mostly I pray that they will breathe deeply of grace. And discover, as I have, that we travel a little lighter when God’s grace carries us along.