Somebody asked me the other day if I would allow a person that smoked to serve in ministry and leadership at my church. The answer, I thought, was a no-brainer. I answered quickly with, “of course!” I’m not sure which shocked them more, actually; the fact that I would allow such people to serve (and even *gasp* minister to others), or the fact that I took no time to think about the answer. But I had plenty of time to think about that answer … as I was in ministry and smoking.
It took me a long time to quit smoking cigarettes. Not only was the addiction to nicotine tough to beat, but the routines with smoking were well entrenched after 13 years of smoking. Wake up:cigarette. Talking on the phone:cigarette. Driving:cigarette. Drink a beer:cigarette. Cup of coffee:cigarette. Everything i had done for 10 years involved smoking. Suddenly I’m living a different life, and in ministry, and I can’t quit smoking. But i was given the grace to minister to others while working through my own struggles.
We all have struggles
This post isn’t about smoking; it’s about struggles, and how we view others who are struggling. This person was shocked and somewhat angered that I would allow a smoker to serve in the church; yet this person has their own struggles and is quite proud of their service. Why, oh why, do we insist on acting this way, especially in the church?
Smoking is bad, and sure, maybe even sinful. As Christians we believe our bodies are a gift from God, and so we should take care of them. Also, God probably doesn’t take much delight in watching addiction control the life of one of His children.
This person reminded me that Paul calls us to give our bodies to God as living and pleasing sacrifices (see Romans 12). That’s right, Paul does say that, and reminds us that this “is truly the way to worship [God].” Paul then urges us not to copy the behaviour and customs of the world, “but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” Might this change in thought also include the way we think about others? Why are we so quick to condemn others while we accept and claim grace for ourselves?
Ashtrays at church
unlike the rest of us who come with our struggles hidden and hoping to convey we’ve got it all together
My wife and I visited another church last Sunday in our neighborhood. As we walked closer to the church I could smell the scent of Export ‘A’ and Canadian Classics in the air. And then I saw it. It was one of the most amazing sites I’ve seen at a church in a long time. There, off to the side a bit, was a park-like setting with flower beds, park benches, and a large upright ashtray! I loved it, and for a couple different reasons.
First, the ashtray conveys a true sense of welcome for people just as they are.
Second, and best of all, I like the honesty and transparency of a smoker at church. Most smokers know and admit it’s a bad habit, unhealthy, a waste of money, etc. Most have probably tried at some point, or are currently trying, to quit. They’re struggling and doing the best they can, and in the midst of that struggle they’re coming to worship and hear about Jesus. At least the smoker is coming and putting out their nasty habit and struggle in front of everyone at the doors of the church, unlike the rest of us who come with our struggles hidden and hoping to convey we’ve got it all together.
What if …
What if every church had an ashtray at the front doors, but they weren’t just for smokers? What if everybody came to church, just as they are, and in front of everyone gave up their habits – what if everyone that came to church came not judging the struggles of others, but came saying, “I have struggles too. Let’s do this together.”
Can you imagine the kind of transformation that would take place in faith communities if we came each week dropping our struggles in front of everyone, allowing them to see the truth of what we’re dealing with. Smoke embeds in your clothing, and follows you around. It stains your fingers and teeth. A smoker is easy to find; their struggle is easy to identify. Your struggles, though, are probably easy to hide – and that’s just the way we like it, thank you very much.
Struggles can be difficult to beat; struggles are difficult to give up. They can not only be addictions, but they can also be part of our everyday routines. Everything that we do leads us back to whatever it is we’re struggling with. While we so desperately want to give them up we’re not willing at the same time to let anybody know about them. It’s much easier to keep them hidden under shame and guilt, or maybe even a bit of self-assurance that our struggle isn’t as bad as others.
But I want to put an ashtray outside my church. A place where we puposefully stop, and drop the charade in front of everyone. A physical reminder that people are welcome just as they are, and they don’t have to have it all together to enter through those doors into worship. A place where we admit that we’re coming today with struggles, and in front of everyone we say, “This is me. I’m coming as I am. Just another person with struggles, walking this journey with you, seeking something more, something higher.”
Can you imagine?