Go Ahead and Smoke?
It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything. It isn’t from lack of content. Quite the contrary. There has been so much happening lately and I find myself too tired to write. There’s also something else. I’ve become afraid of offending people again. I say again because I’ve been here before. Once again I think I have to push through the fear because the things that are happening are just the things people need to read about and consider. So, trusting in God’s amazing ability to use everything for good, here I go.
This week marks the end of our summer Bible camp season. This year we were able to send 111 kids to two different camps over three weeks. We are so grateful to those who donated for this effort. The price tag is around $20,000. But we received donations from all over the city and we are thankful.
One evening this week I got a call from the director of the camp where most of the kids go. It’s about 4 hours from us. Great place. Amazing people. They want to help us reach our kids for Jesus. The call wasn’t good. The director was really angry and asked me to come and take home a couple of the boys. He caught them smoking. He dealt with it. Two days later, he caught them again. That’s it. Home they go because they didn’t respect the rules.
I know and love the boys involved. They are great kids, full of potential and life. When I got to the camp they came out of chapel and embraced me and just hung on to me. Turns out, four of them were coming home with me. Three struggle with English and are closer to 20 than 15. One is 13 and from a Buddhist family.
Here’s the back story. These boys came to the US as refugees four or five years ago. The older ones were about 12 or 13 when they arrived. That’s the hardest age to assimilate to our culture. You don’t really understand your culture of origin yet and now you are thrown into a new one with a new language. They sort of have their feet in both worlds but aren’t really comfortable in either. The youngest came when he was 9 or 10. That’s a great age to change cultures. You’re resilient. You master both languages and both worlds.
The boys were born and grew up living in refugee camps comprised of bamboo houses along the Thai-Burma border. Their parents taught them how to smoke when they were about 8.
Back at camp, I asked for clarification about why the boys were being sent home. “Was it the smoking or was it the disrespect?” The counselors all said it was the smoking. The director said it was the smoking and that the second time it was disrespect because they were told not to do it. So I asked the boys why they smoked the second time. Especially since the counselors caught them so quickly, it seemed as if the boys weren’t hiding it at all. “Pastor John, we couldn’t hold it anymore,” they said. Two days was about as long as they could go without tobacco. I suppose seven years of casual smoking would create an addiction. Lesson learned by Pastor John and Zion: next time we send the high school kids to camp, bring along some Nicorrette gum. And we need to do a much better job of bridging the cultural divides on both sides.
The camp director told me this was only the second time in 20 some years he’d sent someone home. The first time it was for heresy. Of course, in my mind, I began to wonder if smoking was now on par with heresy. I think in the eyes of our society it might be. The director was worried that the boys were a bad example to the other kids.
On the long ride home I asked the boys about the camp. They had a wonderful time. They loved their counselors. They didn’t mean to be disrespectful at all. They loved the food. They loved the games. And then they very carefully explained the gospel to me. The Buddhist boy told me all about Jesus and how he came and died on the cross for our sins and rose again. They got the message. Mission accomplished. It’s just a crying shame they had to go home early. And I’m left wondering if we lived up the gospel that they heard at camp.
So I shared their story with some of the staff and leaders and volunteers at Zion. We all had a good laugh. Turns out that we all had the same reaction to the boys being sent home for smoking. Here’s our reaction: At Zion we’re actually worried about young men we know by name who came to the US from the middle east at that awkward age between 13 and 18 and can’t seem to find their place in either culture growing up to join a terrorist group. We’re worried about other kids growing up to join a gang or getting into drugs or guns. We’re worried about the safety of our kids growing up on mean streets and becoming the victims of senseless violence. We’re so worried about the kids and these big things we were completely surprised by what we didn’t worry about. We didn’t worry about them smoking.
I think that’s part of what makes Zion such a weird and wonderful place. What seems to scandalize most people doesn’t seem to bother us at all. We’re focused on other things.
My wife and I had dinner with a new family at Zion this week. They described what it was like to come to Zion for the first time. They talked about how when you walk into the lobby you’re confronted by the furniture there for people to take. And the bins full of clothes that arrived for the clothes closet and the people going through the bins and choosing items before church starts. They talked about walking down the hall and being overwhelmed by the different languages being spoken. And about how our worship service has absolutely no aspect of being a big show. They talk about their first impressions as a kind of assault on their senses. Like being immersed in ice cold water. Thankfully, they decided to stay and deploy themselves for the sake of the gospel through the ministries of Zion.
We understand that we’re a weird church. We understand that we present as an overwhelming, out of control place at first. We’re not focused on the things other people are focused on. We’re focused on the immediate matter of being the gospel in our community. But we have come to believe that’s the nature of the gospel. The gospel is wild and beyond our control. The gospel is about a God who loves us so much that he takes on flesh and blood for us, rescues us on the cross, and rises to give us a new life. It’s about a God that invites us to join him on his mission to reconcile the whole world to himself. It’s about a God who welcomes sinners and changes them and makes them new and gives them meaning and purpose. The gospel is like being immersed in freezing cold water. It wakes you up and gives you the chills and makes you change your perspective. This gospel is for smokers and non smokers, rich and poor, beggars and thieves, the righteous and the unrighteous, for red, yellow, black and white, for male and female, for young and old.
Thanks for reading. God bless you. PJ