By Ruth Wilkinson
I often come home from church smelling rather strongly of cigarette smoke. It’s always been this way at GTI, but more so since we stopped meeting in the big room (too cold in the winter) and moved for the season into a team member’s room. Smaller room, more concentrated smoke.
I’ve always disliked the smell of dirty ashtrays and smoke-saturated clothing. (My coat is currently airing out on the back porch.) I’ve resented being subjected to other people’s bad habits while I eat in a restaurant or sit on a park bench. But in the last couple of years, since I’ve been involved at GTI, I find the smell is starting to remind me of friends. Which is weird.
So this morning, the smoke was a bit thicker than usual. I had chosen to read Psalm 139, a group favourite, and was about a quarter of the way into it when I became unusually aware of something. I’m not sure I can explain this, but here goes.
I’d take a breath, read a verse or two, then take another breath and read a bit further. But I was powerfully struck by the fact that each breath I took in was full of secondhand smoke.
And it was that smoky breath that was coming back out, over my vocal chords, to form the words of the Psalm. The words of God. Suddenly, I could feel the pollution coming out in the shape of Scripture. It was very disconcerting. Not wrong necessarily , but incongruous, if you know what I mean.
I felt, briefly, like the air wasn’t fit to use for this purpose. Like the reading of scripture deserved pure air. Healthy air, not disease-inducing. Perfumed, not musty.
I pictured all of the scripture readings I’d sat or stood through over the years–done by people neatly dressed in slightly better than office wear, in tidy buildings, during organized gatherings. The readers would meet certain criteria for lifestyle appropriateness. It was all just so.
And here I was, sitting in a plastic patio chair, drinking instant coffee from a mug that says “I may be fat, but you’re ugly and I can go on a diet,” surrounded by a blue haze reading out the words of the Psalmist, feeling the smoke in my lungs and throat. I decided to think more about it later.
After the reading, we talked about the idea of being hidden by ‘darkness’. How sometimes the darkness is something we seek out, and sometimes it’s forced upon us; but either way God sees us and walks with us through it. We talked about what it’s like to be beaten by your father, then by your husband, and by the men you love after that.
We talked about whether it’s better to be lonely and “miss the beatings”, or to go looking for a man who’ll start them all over again. We talked about what it’s like to be bad-mouthed by a family member and, as a consequence, lose your children and how much you miss them. We talked about how one of us needs to go to a difficult appointment this week, and how we could work it out that one of us could go with her for moral support and to help her remember all the questions she needed to ask. We talked about what parts of the Bible we find helpful and whether or not there is a Hell. We talked and talked and prayed together. And it was very good.
On the drive home, I started thinking about the whole thing.
I still don’t like secondhand smoke. I still dislike the smell. But long story short, God did use the polluted air in that room this morning. He used it as we encouraged each other. He used it to carry messages of love and empathy and understanding. He used it to carry his own words,
“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in hell, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.”
I don’t have a good, neat conclusion to this one yet. I know I’m learning something. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that “God uses what he chooses and he chooses the unlikely.” It has something to do with the fact that, at heart, I’m just as polluted as the air I was breathing this morning. But he seems to be using me. And maybe a little to do with the fact that the Church is just as icky, sometimes, but still he uses the Church. And maybe even a whole lot to do with humility.
I can still feel it in my chest and I don’t think it’s going away soon. I’ve read somewhere that, “You can’t change the world if you’re not willing to sit in the smoking section.”
Ruth is a singer/ songwriter/ storyteller/ Nora Jones wannabe and Figurehead of the GTI. Her duties include saying yes to everybody else’s good ideas, leading church on Sunday morning, and trying very hard to learn lots of Johnny Cash songs (which is not appreciated by her husband and two sons).