By Scott Keith –
Let me set the stage. After five days of being as sick as I have ever been in my life, my wife finally drags me to the urgent care. Now, keep in mind that I am really sick at this point. I a have 102° fever (often pushing 103°), I’m coughing my brains out, I have a horrendous headache, and generally look like death on a cracker. The first doctor I saw diagnosed me with an ear infection, upper respiratory infection, and said I might have pneumonia. So he gives me some antibiotics and we go home. But before I leave, I’m sent to a nurse to discuss a smoking cessation program. That’s right, at one point in my sickened stupor, I must have admitted that I smoke a pipe once or twice a week. That was enough to get the wheels of the medical-political machine moving. It no longer mattered that I was very ill with something that had absolutely nothing to do with smoking a pipe. All that mattered was that I was one of those evil ones: a smoker.
The next day, things had not improved. In fact, it became apparent that things were worse when I became very short of breath. So back to the urgent care we went. This time, the doctor seemed to take things a bit more seriously and ordered a chest X-ray and some blood tests. He determined that I had pneumonia and was worried that I may have thrown a blood clot to my lung. That’s right, a fricking blood clot. So he gets ready to rush me to the ER and calls the ER to let them know I’m coming. As he’s worried that I’m in an emergency condition, he asks me, “So how often do you smoke?” This is followed by a five-minute lecture on how all tobacco use is harmful to me. Again, even if he believed that my smoking might have contributed to an only “possible” clot, is while I feel like death the time to ask me about it? I brush him off, which sends him to ask me about partaking in a smoking cessation class. What? Leave me the “F” alone or get me to the hospital.
So, for the sake of time, let’s just say that I’m not admitted that day, but the blood clot was supposedly ruled out. Two days later, I find myself in the ER again, as things have yet again gotten progressively worse. I am admitted to the hospital for four days, and in those four days, I’m asked (I counted) twenty-four times if I’m a smoker. No one ever suggested that my pneumonia might be related to my non-inhaling, twice a week pipe smoking. Yet, every time I’m asked, against the advice of my lovely wife, I am, in my pneumonia weakened voice, defiant about the fact that I do smoke a pipe and that I’m not going to freaking stop.
What astounds me is how many times I felt like my occasional smoking was more important to the medical professionals than my actual illness. I was and am, after all, actually ill. I was ill enough to be hospitalized for four days. That illness had nothing to do with the smoking I was incessantly hounded about. I was even told on my way out of the hospital that, even though I denied the smoking cessation classes, one had been scheduled for me anyway. It is as if they could not see my illness clearly due to the distraction of my sin: smoking. My real illness laid vailed in the so-called evil of all things tobacco related. I am convinced that smoking has become more of a medical lobby or distraction than a health concern.
Is it different in the Church? Do we fail to see the actual illness due to the distraction of our own political lobbies? After all, sex outside of marriage, addiction, and even real or supposed heterodoxy are all symptoms; they are not the illness. The illness lies deep inside all of us. It is a matter of the heart. Christ says: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery…” (Mark 7:21)
Our focus on the external sins of our neighbor often seems like my doctor’s obsession with my pipe smoking. They may be bad, and perhaps even ought to be avoided, but they are not really the problem. The problem is that, apart from Christ, we are all dead men walking. To my pastor friends and those in charge of hearing confessions and absolving sinners, I’d like to remind you that the dead people are right in front of you. The problem isn’t really that they “smoke a pipe.” The problem is that they need the forgiveness, hope, freedom, and new life that can only be found in Christ.
As my friend Paul Koch reminded me when he was on the Thinking Fellows podcast some time ago, pastors are the hitmen and midwives of Christ. They are to kill and make alive with the Law and the Gospel. Just as my doctors really only had one job (healing my illness), so too, pastors have the same job: healing our great illness with the proclaimed Gospel of Christ.
As you walk through the doors of your church this Sunday, I pray that your pastor kills you and makes you alive with God’s Law and His Gospel. I pray that he doesn’t necessarily see it as his job to heal all of your sinful peccadillos, but rather that he heals you, the dead sinner, making you alive with the proclamation of a Savior who became sin in your stead.
As for me, I have no plans to quit smoking my pipe any time soon, though I will probably take a break for several weeks. I would also ask for your prayers, as my recovery is slow. I have been surrounded by a great cloud of saints who have uplifted me to God’s mercy and grace in their prayers, and for that I am most thankful. Praise be to God for His mercy shown on us on account of Christ our Lord.