Up in Smoke

Before you read the following, I would like to encourage you first to read Destroying the Temple.

I used to love a good cigar, but I am a diabetic and my only sibling died in 1985, at the ripe old age of 46.

Let me start with my brother. He had retired from the Air Force thirteen months before, where he had been a B-52 pilot, appeared to be in perfect health, ate and drank very moderately, worked out at the gym three days a week and had no visible, excess fat. But he dropped dead of a sudden, massive heart attack on September 18, 1985.

When I got back from doing his funeral — the hardest thing I ever did — I had a thorough examination by a cardiologist, who after giving me an EKG on a treadmill, asked me all about my brother’s life-style.  When he discovered that my brother smoked cigarettes, he told me, “He shaved seventeen years off his life by smoking.”

How did the cardiologist know that? What other factors did he not take into consideration? My brother had been born quite premature back in 1939, a time when medical science had not developed neo-natal care as it has today. What were the stresses that he may have faced with his family? He had taken the lives of many people as he dropped his bombs on North Vietnam. How much did his conscience haunt him for killing all those little children in a war that was fought and lost largely because of the self-interests of politicians?  In fact, during the war, he expressed his disapproval about the war and how it was being fought — I guess that’s why he stayed the same rank for the last eleven years he was in the Air Force even though he was an Air Force Academy graduate and had a masters in economics — perhaps all of these things may have contributed to his early death.

The cardiologist had a point — I have no doubt that heavy, long term tobacco use tends to contribute to a variety of ailments, including cancer and heart disease, but human beings simply are incapable of considering all the factors in any situation, and nothing can be known absolutely except by God. We still see through a glass darkly: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:3-5)

We arrogant human beings, in our quest to reenter Eden, assume that we can ultimately control our destinies by our knowledge. I remember a statue of two raptors standing outside Mitchell Hall at my brother’s alma mater, with the inscription: “Man’s Flight Through Life Is Sustained by the Power of His Knowledge.” To which, I say with Saint Paul: “Skybalon!” (Philippians 3:8)

I am a diabetic. On June 26, 1997, I learned that I was a diabetic. After learning this, I went back to my office, shut the door and wept. Then I gave it to God, dried my tears and got on with life. I have had only one small portion of a refined-sugar-based sweet since that day. For me, sugar and anything that metabolizes too quickly into sugar is a poison — that means that I don’t even drink orange juice except in very small quantities. I have to watch potatoes and too much bread, especially white bread — “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’re dead.” I punctured my finger when I got up this morning, and my blood sugar was only 105 . . . wonderful, but I have to take medicine now to keep it that way, whereas I was able to control it with diet and exercise for the first four years.

Now I have a strong urge to condemn other people for what they eat, especially during grazing season, which runs from Thanksgiving until Mardi Gras in Louisiana — I’ll have to be extra careful until Ash Wednesday. Sometimes I go to our men’s Saturday morning prayer meeting, and somebody has brought fat pills (doughnuts). I have to fight saying something about it, so I ask myself, who am I to judge another man’s servant? Then to conquer the rising lust, I remind myself that a doughnut is simply made up of a massive amount of sweetened lard with flour. By the grace of God, at Thanksgiving and Christmass, my family can feast on all kinds of sugary stuff after eating the roasted turkey (aren’t they kin to buzzards?), and I can content myself with an artificially sweetened Eskimo Pie. Okay, okay, I know that stuff can be bad for you, too, so I try to avoid Nutrasweet — who really knows about the effects of massive amounts? But a guy needs a little something sweet once in a while, and I have now discovered the splendor of Splenda. Real sugar scares me, because I just can’t stop with one candy bar.

Lastly, I used to love a good cigar. I know that it makes your breath smell like a combination of kitty litter and an ash tray, but I found it wonderfully relaxing slowly to puff away, thinking deep thoughts about God and things. I once enjoyed a lovely Buteras cigar in Houston with Michael Butera himself . . . best cigar I ever had. 

Ned Randolph, Bob Vincent, Michael Butera and John Meeks

But the last time I smoked a cigar, I was sitting down in my boat house on a warm summer evening, reading Bob Reymond’s New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. I don’t know whether it was his departure from the Nicene Creed or the cigar, but as I climbed the hill back up to my house, I tossed my cookies.  I still have a humidor full of fine cigars, including five Romeo Y Julieta Habanas brought back from Cuba by a good friend, but I’ll probably use them to treat bee stings on my grandchildren. With my diabetes and everything else, the pleasure pay off is not a big enough compensation for me to light up. I’ve got to make sure that my neuropathy doesn’t get worse, which tobacco use seems to affect, because I don’t want somebody to chop off my feet.  

What is my point? I can already feel the little Pharisee that lives inside me getting bigger whenever I see somebody light up. Because I have concluded that I can’t do it anymore, deep down inside, I want to legislate for everybody else, too, just as I tend to do with candy and cake. But Saint Paul warns me not to sit in judgment of my brother now that my faith is weak regarding my smoking cigars. (Romans 14, especially verse 10, “Why do you judge your brother?” and 1 Corinthians 8-10)

My smoking friends have to be careful, too, because they may look down on me for my lack of faith about tobacco and write me off as less than thoroughly biblical — they may even call me a “fundy” or a pietist behind my back. Saint Paul has a word for them, too: “Why do you look down on your brother?” (Romans 14:10)  Clair Davis once told me that you used to be able to tell a persons theological stance by what he had in his mouth:

Reformed: Pipe
Neo-Orthodox: Cigar
Liberal: Cigarette
Pietist: Nothing

Saint Paul goes on to warn all of us: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak . . . therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall . . . But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ . . . Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible . . . I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings . . . ‘Everything is permissible’ — but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’ — but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others . . . So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God — even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” (1 Corinthians 8:9, 13; 9:12, 19-23; 10:23, 24, 31-33)

There are a lot of things that simply are not sinful in and of themselves. The phonemes that comprise the old Saxon, monosyllabic, onomatopoeic, physiological terms, such as s. h. i. t., are not sinful. But I can assure you that such things in our speech will put up a mighty big barrier between us and most people — worse than going into the pulpit with a huge piece of snot (another of those old Saxon words) stuck to the end of your nose or glistening in your mustache. I did use the “S” word once in a sermon that I preached from Philippians 3, but it was in prison — I would be a fool to use it from the pulpit of my church.

Smoking is not unrelated to that. Saint Paul has a word about all these matters: “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. (He doesn’t mean not to teach biblical truth to others, just that we shouldn’t flaunt our freedom in Christ.) Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:22, 23)

Always teach the truth. Smoke, if you must, in private, but brush your teeth before speaking to those who don’t smoke, and especially before kissing your wife.

Bob Vincent

“Sive ergo manducatis sive bibitis vel aliud quid facitis omnia in gloriam Dei facite.”