Saturday, August 4, 2012

On Tobacco and Prayer

Throughout the Bible, and quite notably in the Old Testament, God has allowed, encouraged, even ordained "props" to facilitate his people worshiping him. Whether it was the community gathering for public sacrifices, or just the private prayer of the sincerely pious, God appears to understand that we, as humans, interact with "stuff" in our normal lives, and thus has fully endorsed the use of "stuff" by which we can interact with him too. This all is in line with the regular teaching on praxi fide I perform concerning the "elements of the sacred:

-Sacred times
-Sacred space
-Sacred rites
-Sacred offices
-Sacred objects

Each of these categories can be further classified in terms of whether they are used in a normative vs deviant manner, or whether they're utilized at the official or popular level. I also want to differentiate whether it was a typical vs atypical use of that "element of the sacred" as well. Concerning "sacred objects," while we see a "typical" use of the Ark of the Covenant during the history of ancient Israel recorded in the Hebrew Bible, the use of Elijah's cloak to part the River Jordan, so that Elisha walked across it on dry land, would be more an "atypical" use. The use of the cloak, itself, doesn't get much more "screen time" after that, if any. So there is a sense in which a "sacred object" develops a "typical" use among God's people, often because it's used in normative, official worship. In like manner though, an object can become "spontaneously sacred" because God appears to have decided it warranted an "atypical" use for an opportune moment (i.e. Elisha's use of Elijah's cloak, God's use of a fish for Jonah, Jesus' use of mud to restore a man's sight, etc.).

While I'm loathed to arbitrarily dubbing things "sacred" on my own, and certainly not for normative, official use outside of the accountability of the Church, there have been times when it seemed the Lord used a object for a decidedly "sacred" purpose. At those moments I'm amazed at his willingness to use "props" to get the job done. Recently I was struck by two occasions in which God appeared to have "ordained" tobacco for "sacred use." This might seem quite obvious to pipe smokers, who often must sit and contemplate something while packing and re-lighting the bowl; but it is just as possible for cigars as well. This is nothing new to the men that attend "Pipe Club" at my church, but to the untrained eye, it might be surprising. Nevertheless, the point was driven home to me recently when at the station for Westlake Fire Dept.

On the first occasion, it was my pleasure to begin getting to know firefighters and EMT personnel during the night shift. As several of us stood out in front of the bay, it suddenly seemed wise to have another good reason to stand around and slow down (pending whether we got a call or not right then). Recalling that I had brought a cigar with me, the moment could not have been more opportune to light it and take the necessary time to enjoy it there among my new crew. The result was magical. The timing of drawing and blowing smoke actually helped pace the conversation. This was ideal while interacting with one firefighter with whom I was able to share aspects of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The slow rhythm of drawing and purging smoke made me draw out sentences and thoughts in a manner this young man seemingly needed to get the greatest impact from the conversation. I would later tell my wife it seemed like a "magic cigar" because of how God used it as a "prop" to maximize my connections to firefighters that night.

On a second occasion, I was at the station and determined it was a good time to go outside and enjoy a short 4.5 inch Arturo Fuente sun-grown cigar. This time there was no one around for whom the cigar could "pace the conversation," so instead it paced my conversation with God. Too often time spent in prayer can be rushed, hurried or cut short by distractions. It can be necessary to use "props" to remind us of the value of slowing down and drawing out the prayer time in a meaningful way. Needing to take my time to enjoy the cigar helped me think prayerfully about the dept, its personnel, the apparatus that conveys them safely to the scene and all those who will interact with the dept when emergency strikes. This cigar facilitated the "sacred rite" of prayer, walking around the station and stopping to consider each aspect of the department's operations in entreating God to be gracious to them and empower their efforts. Of course, a byproduct was that any firefighters that walked up to me right then got my full attention because I was not in a hurry to leave that setting anyway. I still had half my cigar to go!

In a sense, the first story was about prayer as well because each slow draw allowed me the time between sentences to listen carefully to the Lord, asking in him in the moment, "What do you think I should say next?" (e.g. Neh 2:3-5). It would appear that the Lord had spontaneously "ordained" cigars as a "prop," or "sacred object" for use in the "sacred rite" of prayer. There's no denying the level to which I was assisted in slowing down enough to talk with God in those ministerial moments, even as I also was speaking with others in front of me. Now I see a connection between tobacco and prayer that had previously eluded me. There is nothing in the tobacco itself, but the practice of enjoying the cigar or pipe forces me to slow down and be more calm than is my default setting. This alone is a tremendous spiritual benefit. For this reason I will strive never to go to the station without at least one cigar in my backpack. I may take a spare to prepare for the eventuality that a firefighter needs to talk with me over the "holy smoke" too.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Inevitability of God

It never fails. Sheep wander away. That's what sheep do. They're rather predictable that way. Fortunately for them, they often don't have the final say as to whether they remain lost or not. A determined and decisive Shepherd may just decide to go find them, and is wholly undeterred by their pathetic nature as sheep. He knows they're sheep. He knows their nature, and it doesn't phase him in the least. He WILL find his lost sheep. It's really rather inevitable.

For this reason it is so very appropriate that God is likened to a Shepherd in several places of Holy Scripture, and we likened to his "sheep." Many wander off that fall into traps of their own making. However, for reasons which seem good to Him, God will select some "sheep" to hunt down, seek out, track and rescue even in spite of themselves. There is no way to predict it. God is his own person and often plays things rather close to the vest. In fact, among the more meaningless exercises is to busy one's self with speculations about why he chose to rescue THIS "sheep" but not THAT one. That is why I often say, "for reasons which seem good to him..." to preface something he apparently has done or is up to. But in any event, when he decides to track down and rescue a "sheep" that has wandered astray, there simply is no stopping him, avoiding him or resisting him. He is the preeminently inevitable force that cannot be deterred, redirected or stifled.

God can be likened to a freight train with a mile long link of connected boxcars. There is simply no stopping it. To try would be the height of folly. Only this "train" is not going to run you over, per se. It's going to pick you up and carry you to a land of blessing you didn't expect, and didn't even think to ask for. I suppose that inevitability applies as a destructive force for those rebelling against God and filling the world with evil, but his preferred role has always been that of a Redeemer who swoops in to rescue people from destruction. Any time he has announced pending judgment in the Bible it was always to offer people time to turn away from their destructive practices and avoid harm. It seems God prefers to be the "rescue train" that comes barreling down the tracks with no signs of slowing.

I have experienced God's inevitability many times in my life. Each time I have been rescued by his unstoppable force it has always left me humbled that I seemingly was never out of his mind even as I was trying to push him out of mine. I had a very distinct experience in the Navy when I thought I was "far from God," only to soon find that train coming down the tracks toward me. "He found me!" I remember thinking to myself, "How did he know where I was? I mean EXACTLY where I was?" Such thoughts speak to the inevitable nature of God's rescuing instincts as a Good Shepherd. In like manner I have had friends that, having been rescued by God after having wandered away said, "I see now that he was never going to leave me where I was. He saved me in spite of myself." Their thoughts reflect how all that are rescued from truly hopeless situations feel: that God was the rescuer who, by his own will and drawing on his own resources, saved the day all on his own. His love as a Good Shepherd, his determination as a tracker and rescuer, was simply inevitable. When we realize it, we kneel in quiet thankfulness that he is the way he is, regardless of how "sheep" are.