Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Smoking in the boys room

I'll never forget my exodus from church camp at the age of fourteen.

It was a summer like every other.  Flocks of kids from clean-cut middle to upper class homes all gathered together for a week of fun in the sun.  Pool time, prank time and time away from the adults to make your move on the hottest girl in Sunday School with short intermissions of cheesy songs and uncomfortable looking counselors talking about things from the Bible that they thought we would find interesting.  It was good clean fun, you know: diving competitions, kickball, shaving cream fights, hanging someone's underwear from the flagpole, and midnight adventures to the local graveyard.  Everyone always had a blast.

At camp I felt like I was the only one who didn't fit in.  Not because I wasn't accepted by my peers but because I knew nothing about their "have what you want, when you want it because Jesus loves you" lifestyle.  That kind of thinking didn't even show up on my radar.  On the days prior to and following the week of church camp, my food was purchased with WIC vouchers and food stamps.  In fact, if it had not been for some generous folks in the congregation, I would not have been able to afford to attend camp at all.  This was the deepest darkest secret of my adolescence.  I was ashamed of living in poverty and did not want to lose the bond I had with my much more affluent friends.

It all came crashing down in the summer during my fourteenth year of age.  At this point in time I had picked up a habit demonstrated by every living adult who meant anything to me; smoking cigarettes.  It's true, every single person I can remember that loved me for who I was and not for who I fooled them into believing I was, was a smoker.  Smoking and being a loving person went together like love and marriage.  So, I tried it and after choking up a lung decided I liked it.  I liked it so much that I began hiding it from every adult in the tri-state area, sneaking a few out of the packs that were laying around my house from various adults which eventually led to shoplifting cigarettes to feed my addiction.  Over time, I got more sophisticated in my techniques and was able to find adults that would buy them for me.  Those were the best...the ones bought with my hard earned money in my very own brand of choice.  This was the pack I carried with me to church camp that summer.

I had it all worked out.  I had friends who were in on my secret and they would be my lookout.  I had the schedule memorized and the optimal times to sneak away for a smoke all figured out.  It was not a flawless plan.  Once an adult caught wind of nicotine in the air, the hunt was on and eventually I was the marked target.  I would now have to pay for my sins and be put away from the flock.  As they say:   little leaven leavens the whole lump.

I vividly remember the pastor bringing be into a private room, taking out my delicious pack of Marlboro Red's and going completely mental as he broke every one with veins pulsing in his forehead and the look of pure disgust on his face.  "I'm doing this because I love you" he tells me.  Huh, I thought.  Strange love.

After he took out all his emotions on my helpless pack of cancer sticks he escorted me out to the pool where all the other kids were playing.  He got everyone's attention so that I could obey his command to confess to everyone my addiction to cigarettes and let them all know that I was leaving.  It is my most embarrassing memory to date and I owe it all to the Pastor who "loved" me enough to put me through it.

Whenever I return to this time in my mind the feelings come flooding back.  Embarrassment, shame, fear, guilt, rejection, anger, sadness all coursed through my veins simultaneously.  A sweaty little teenage boy hoping to find someone who would accept me in spite of my failures.

That is exactly what I found at home.  My mom seemed surprised when the pastor walked me up to the door and exposed my errors.  After suggesting some of what he considered to be justified consequences for my transgression, he turned back to his truck and made way back to the campground.  My mom sat me down and told me that smoking was stupid.  She should know.  Then she told me that it wasn't my smoking that disappointed her.  It was my lying to her and hiding from her.

Everything changed within me at that moment.

My emotions all began twisting and turning at this new revelation.  I hurt my mom and she was one of the only ones I knew who really did love me.  It was the first time I understood what my sin really was and it had nothing to do with nicotine.  It had to do with my relationships.  As I thought about the importance of my relationship with my mom and the other people who cared for me I had lied to I felt like smoking was no longer even an issue.

I wonder if it ever occurred to the pastor just how damaging his "love" would have been to me if I didn't have my mom there to demonstrate what love really was.  She didn't go mad, put on a furious face and seek to embarrass me.  No, she revealed to me the importance of our relationship and accepted me, cigarettes, failures and all.

Because that is what love does, that is what God does.


Do you have a story that has changed your view of love?


  1. Maybe a lot of our church activities are about conformity and behavior modifcation rather than transformation?

  2. When I was ready for high school, my parents suggested a business school that took nearly an hour and a half and 2 city buses to reach. I knew no one there. All of my friends were attending our neighborhood school. I was very quiet, shy and self conscious, but I agreed to give it a try because I wanted to be a secretary and it was the best option. As I sat at a lunch table, alone and regretting my decision, a girl came up to me and asked me if I would like to sit at her table. She had friends she was sitting with, but she reached out to me anyway. She is probably the most selfless person I've ever known, who has had more tragedies in her life than most. After 40 years (yes, I admit it's been that long) she STILL checks in with me to be sure I'm doing okay. In fact, I just heard from her this morning, and I had to share what a profound effect her love has had on my life.

    Deb Heisler (Twitter name @ShaneComeHome)


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