The fit hits the Shan, No. 3: Why can’t church be more like the smoking section?

Shan is back with possibly my favorite post from her yet (aside from the knockout that kicked this series off). Love this image. Enjoy.


I miss smoking.

Not the blood pressure spikes or the way the top of my mouth always felt like it needed to be cleaned with windex; I miss the kinship.

I miss the empathy of one needy person sympathizing with another. There is a smoker’s code. Any smoker can ask any other known smoker at any time for a cigarette or the use of a lighter, and it will be shared, if available.  (This is possibly untrue in prison where Shawshank Redemption instructs me cigarettes are actually a currency and treated differently as a result). If the smoker can not supply the requested smoke or light, they will often go out of their way to connect the smokeless soul to another smoker to meet the need. A smoker understands what it is like to escape from a stressful day at work for 15 minutes for a chemical boost only to find the pack empty.  A smoker can feel the frustration of stopping at a gas station on a road trip and  realizing when carded that your ID is at home. A smoker has shown up to be the wingman and needed more than the tail end of their pack to be able to keep making small talk with the cute couple’s awkward roommate.   A smoker has been there.

I miss how smoking with a group of people (even if you don’t know them) creates an impromptu therapy group. Something about knowing you all have this same primal dependency seems to be equalizing in some way. It is somehow safe to say into the quiet between puffs that you had a fight with your family the night before or that your girlfriend just isn’t inspiring you anymore or that your boss is unfair and you’re worried about your job. I have accepted the advice and concern of people smoking next to me whom it would never have occurred to me to even tell anything about myself to, let alone actually share frustration or struggle with. Maybe the fact that we all know on some level that the habit is a liability at best and a weakness at worst makes us (when smoking) willing to accept the imperfections of others a little more gently?

In my experience Smokers will often own their weakness. They frequently discuss their desire to quit (“again”) while smoking together.  Fish story lore springs up about how long the last smokefree streak stretched out. “I was doing great until” one-up-manship gets bantered about. You want to hear a tale of woe, listen to smokers tell each other about the crisis that kicked them back off the wagon – and every other smoker there feels their pain.  Even the “I’m not even going to bother to try to quit!” die hards tend to be sympathetic to the folks trying to. I’ve heard them be the first to say “good for you, you keep with it” before drawing in deeply.

I’m sure there are also plenty of stubborn, cantankerous smokers who were never a wingman, don’t give a flying fart about your problems and think trying to quit smoking is for sissies.  But tonight I found myself wondering why being around a group of “fellow sinners” at church isn’t more like sitting around with fellow smokers.

I don’t say this because I think I should take up smoking again. I say it because of 3 things that happened this week: 1)  I hid in a church bathroom crying because the people near me in the service looked at me like I was stomping on the baby jesus in the manger when the cell phone that I genuinely believed I had turned off rang for about 2 seconds during the service.  2)  People like me may not have been losing enough sleep over whether or not God actually loves us as people in spite of how broken and messy we are, so Mark Driscoll put a reminder back out into the ether that God does, indeed, hate some people. I spent a couple hours staring at the ceiling crying about that reminder and feeling utterly alone.  3) Tonight a woman I don’t know, with a slightly panicky and very hopeful look in her eyes, asked me if I had a cigarette and we shared a small moment of bonding in the chilly fall air while I told her I didn’t, but I knew someone who might be able to help her and pointed her in the right direction.  As I turned and walked away I was picturing them (they were virtual strangers to each other) smoking together and I muttered to myself, “christians should be more like smokers” before I even considered it.

So, I sat in the parking lot in my jeep, in the dark, and shed a few more tears and realized that I meant it. Of all people, the ones that say they know they have done wrong and that they’re grateful god forgave them (however they explain the how/why) have reason to be gentle with others who also find themselves to be imperfect and in need of a god.

Now, I know the church is full of very humany humans with very human reactions to the humanity in the world around them. If there’s a god who loves and can indeed forgive, then I know I shouldn’t judge him by the scowlers or Mark Driscolls of his group.  Tonight I’m just acutely aware that I’d like to be sitting around with hoi polloi who empathize with my weaknesses, toss their problems out openly just to be able to share their stress with someone, and are willing to sit comfortably in companionable silence.

I’m wondering if maybe we could have a picnic table outside at all churches.  That way the speaker could announce a 15 minute break and the smokers (closet or otherwise) could head out there.  As for me,  I may just arrive late and head directly to the smoking section.  If you see me there some Sunday, come on over. I’ll lend you a light.

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41 Responses to The fit hits the Shan, No. 3: Why can’t church be more like the smoking section?

  1. eloranicole says:

    wow. shan, this is thought-provoking and so true. thank you for shedding light. may i approach today with the reminder to love – regardless of background or belief.

    • shan k says:

      Thank you, elora! Always so nerve wracking when I leave these pieces of me out in the world for others to read. Appreciate the encouragement.

  2. Alise says:

    My entire smoking history can be summed up with smoking Swisher Sweets after a jazz band gig, and one Halloween where I dressed up as our chain smoking piano professor and smoked (maybe) a third of a Kool cigarette. Badly.

    Nevertheless, I’ve spent a lot of time with smokers and your picture made me cry this morning. Because yes. Acceptance is a beautiful thing. Thank you so much for this picture of what the church could be. Hell, of what PEOPLE could be.

  3. Cathy says:

    Triple-love this. I have never smoked a cigarette (although I enjoy a good cigar from time to time), but I totally get what you’re saying.

    Sometimes the church atmosphere is exhausting, what with everyone trying to either A. Be really, really great all the time, or B. Pretending to be great.

    More empathy and transparency, please.

    Great post.

  4. happygirl says:

    I miss smoking, too. But I resent the smokers I work with getting all the extra breaks in the work day. Just sayin’. God hates sin. God does not hate sinners. You need to get over the looks others give for the cell phone thing. It happens to everyone. And not just in church.

  5. Bethany says:

    I’m not a smoker, but I’ve always been jealous of that camaraderie, and the ability to just take some time and stand outside and breathe and relax. The church should be like smokers. Perhaps we need to be frantically asking each other for grace.

  6. HopefulLeigh says:

    This made me miss the solidarity of smokers. I quit a decade ago but I still miss the camaraderie that came with the territory. Then to contrast that with the church…this is powerful stuff, Shan. Why is it so hard for us to extend grace and lend a hand? The church should be the safest place for us. We’re all the walking wounded and instead of admitting it, we find ourselves hiding behind armor so the congregation doesn’t wound us further. I don’t know what the answer is, other than to fight through my urge not to cry in church, to be vulnerable even when it costs, and to look for others who could use a listening ear.

  7. Jenn says:

    Shan…I love you. I could never stand and smoke with anyone, because of asthma, but the whole scenario you describe has often fascinated me, on many levels….and you put into words some of the thoughts rolling around in my head. To find a place in the church that is like that…would be heavenly. I’m blessed to have found what I think is as close as I’m ever going to get. Those communities do exist, and I wish it wasn’t so painful and difficult to find. I agree, i love the transparency and empathy….the absolute raw realness. This is what draws me to you and to Honey. Because you make no apologies for who you are and where you’re at. Ok, well maybe sometimes, but you’re learning you don’t need to. Again…I love you.

  8. Carolyn says:

    Is this why I always am a little jealous of the smokers standing together looking like they are having a good time? I have never smoked, but I’ve been sitting here crying for hours wondering if I am making family decisions that go against scripture and if God will be mad at me for it. Maybe I need to go pound on the doors of my neighbors and ask if they have a cigarette.

  9. ~mama~ says:

    “So, I sat in the parking lot in my jeep, in the dark, and shed a few more tears and realized that I meant it.”
    That paragraph and the one that preceeds it have me crying. I want to lash out at those that have made you cry. I want to beat myself for the times that I have made you cry…and then I wonder how many times and how many other people have I made cry with my words, my actions or my facial expressions…. I so wish I could not only wipe away those tears, but that I could erase those things that caused them.
    I love you so much, dear daughter!

    • shan k says:

      There will be no beatings on this blog! Beat ye not! We’ve all made people cry and just need to be kinder. And I’m on the top of the list.

  10. steve foster says:

    wow that is a good bit of writing … makes me want to know you … I would light your cigarette and listen to you shoot the breeze between puffs … if it helps any … and I offer this so you know that others think like you … I was honoured to be part of a group called Holy Joes for twenty years … we were Christians who had their meetings in a pub … not only did we drink beer … some of us smoked … it wasn’t compulsory 🙂 I know you are right because some of the most profound emotional life changing conversations I have ever had have been on a smoke break … thanks for your words … I am currently working on a project that will hopefully one day create a church where smokers will be welcome and I think I will call our smokers corner The Screaming Kettle in your honour 🙂

  11. damn. this is good. if we aren’t being those kinds of people and communities, we are doing it wrong every time.

  12. Chad says:

    This is so spot-on! I don’t smoke but everyone out there (myself, especially) is searching for a friendly face walking by.

  13. Steve Foster says:

    sorry couldn’t work out how to reply to a reply … you asking if we had a chapter near you made me laugh … we ran Holy Joes for twenty years and we were constantly asked to set one up in my town … you made me have flashbacks 🙂 I think that we’re the damaged and disaffected are is where the most interesting conversations occur … I work with Greenbelt Arts Festival … a Christian arts faith and justice festival in the UK … this year I couldn’t sleep one night and went back to the site at about 4am because I knew there was a 24hr cafe selling hot tea and I could do some work … a handful of teens keeping warm and chatting and there is the same syndrome … like the proverbial ships in the night you suddeny find yourself embroiled in the most amazing deep conversations … and you may never see them ever again … I keep thinking of phrases like ‘in the company of strangers’ … Jesus somehow always asking or even expecting more of us when faced with a stranger and their needs … and maybe there is something in the idea that we suspend our prejudices and our social constraints when faced with a blunt statement of pain or need … ok I’ll shuddup now ,.. I’m just rambling 🙂

  14. Heather says:

    Wow. That’s something to think about. Thank you for writing this.

  15. Marcus Ames says:

    I nodded a few dozen times here. I had been feeling incredibly left out at the church we’ve been going to the past year, right up until recently when my wife and I started getting to know people one at a time. People have slowly discovered that our being unafraid to talk about anything in our own lives is both a blessing and a curse, as it also follows that we’re unafraid to listen to anything.

    And much like the smoking section, what gets said there usually stays there.

  16. So true. I am reading Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center, by Michael Downing. In the intro, Downing describes his frist visit to the Zen Center, saying that it was not ‘not friendly’, it was just that the prectitioners were going about doing their thing and he felt out of place – until he found the smokers in the alloted space outside where he went to smoke. He then describes the fellowship of smokers much as you have done here. I had to share that with my wife, an ex-smoker, and she fully concurred.

  17. julie says:

    I don’t smoke, but I totally get this. I tend to be a bit on the introverted side in church, I’m 28 and single. Church is one weekly experience that can bring me to tears like no other. I remember saying to a friend once that it breaks my heart that you feel more welcome in a bar than you typically do in church. And I say that knowing that a lot of kind people do go to church. It seems that people have issues reaching out.

  18. Great piece to which i can totally relate.
    Having been ‘trying to give up’ on and off since becoming a Christian, mainly for pride rather than health reasons. I frequently console (justify?!) myself by reflecting on some of the conversations that I have on the church doorstep with other smokers.

  19. Dorothy Hines says:

    This is so true — let us know when you arrive at that bench — I know of several who would join you there

  20. Emily M. says:

    #2 in your list brought me to tears, because as much as I would never wish such a thing on anyone in the world, it was the most comforting thing in the world to see that someone else feels the same things I do and that someone else experiences that too.

    I just can’t even describe what that did for me.

    Thank you.

  21. Yes. Awesome questions/description here. I find my outlet through my blog and find it’s easier to be honest to both the internet world and my church family via the internet. There’s something that just doesn’t lend itself to deep conversation on Sunday mornings. Maybe it’s because “hospitality hour” is more like 10 minutes than an hour, and we rush out after communion Sunday because service goes 15 minutes longer, instead of lingering to actually enjoy a meal together.

    Friends, how can we fix this? How do YOU, as a church member, plan to change things?

    For me, I’m going to start by continually being brutally honest on my blog, and inviting members of my church to join in on the conversation.

  22. Zoey says:

    I love it. I’m a “let it all hang out” type of person – I can’t pretend I’ve got it all together and have given up trying. I’d love the church to less full of people looking and acting like “good Christians” and more of people just being people – sinful, messy people. Maybe that’s why my closest friends are atheists and agnostics – folks who don’t feel they have to have it all together.

  23. Shan – this is a great piece. thanks for not just thinking about it in the parking lot but taking time to flesh it out for us. The church i had the privilege of co-pastoring in Houston for 7 years is called Mercy Street (, and is made up of people in (or trying to be in) recovery from some form of addiction, or from bad church experiences – often both. Needless to say, lots of smokers. Many of whom left during our weekly gathering for a smoke. So we decided to take a 2 minute break in the middle of the service for all those who needed to get up and move around – many of whom headed outside to light up. We’re located in a very large united methodist church, and when the church did extensive remodeling and building a few years ago, the senior pastor took the plans and drew in a smoking section outside the doors we use to enter – complete with overhead fans to cool the smokers in the houston heat. so if you ever have reason to be in houston, head to Mercy Street on a Saturday night – you’ll feel right at home.

    • shan k says:

      Wow, Seth, I’m a cold weather soul, but if I ever find myself down Houston way I would love to stop in. Sounds like a safe place to consider the holy…

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  25. Gette says:

    Beautiful and very true.

  26. Melody says:

    After a journey through depression, and accepting my alcoholism, and back to living in the freedom of Christ, I no longer accept a superficial life. Thanks for living and being yourself. The world is a better place and I believe Jesus is honored by our honesty.

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  28. JayRay says:

    WoW. Totally took me back to high school. My first year (10th grade); I didn’t have a place to fit in, so I decided to go to the “smoker section” of the school during lunch. That is where I found a safe place; an accepting place; and my best friend. It took me 10 years to decided to quit smoking, but this article took me back in a flash. Great message. Got a light?

  29. j says:

    I’m glad I read this! I like the way you explained stuff about smoking and concur that yes, the church should be like the “smoking section.”

  30. M~ says:

    Funny, I was just thinking about the whole culture of smokers and smoking this morning. In my family, everyone smoked – my grandparents, my parents, all my aunts and uncles, my older cousins and eventually, me. Nothing says comfort to me still like the thought of a cigarette and a cup of coffee, almost 20 years after I quit. My grandmother, my mother and my aunts could all strike up what seemed like a life-long friendship with another woman in the time it took to smoke a cigarette.I really loved that. The other day my 16 year old son came home smelling like cigarettes and suddenly I’m not as nostalgic. Isn’t that funny?

  31. This reminds me of the AA meetings I once attended. A bunch of broken people sitting around being honest about the crap in their life, their past, their present. I didn’t hang out in those meetings for too long, but I never met a self-righteous one in the group. But church, that’s a whole ‘nutha monster.
    Thank you for this! Your heart and your honesty!

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