Heavy Smoke

I had a revelation recently while I was on retreat in the woods of northeastern Iowa. I was walking through my old Bible camp, smoking a pipe I had just purchased to celebrate the birth of my son and reflecting on the last 16 years of my life, since I had been awakened to God’s Presence in this place. The woods were silent and still, untrod by any human but me since the snow had fallen. The smoke from my pipe hung heavy in the hollow, adding hints of hazelnut and vanilla to the woodsmoke from my cabin. It was surreal in the most beautiful way I can imagine.

I was working my way up to the main campfire ring on the central plain of camp when I noticed the smoke from my exhale was see through and airy, easily dispersed as it wafted up and away disappearing from sight. As is the case with most pipe smokers, you pay attention to these clues. So, I got out my tamper, lightly pressed the puffed up ash into contact with the tobacco at the bottom of the bowl and took several long draws through the stem until the smoke was substantial once again. I was about to go on my way when I felt the hand of Holy Spirit keep me in place just a moment longer.

I don’t know if it was my attitude, the pristine setting or the Presence of God in that place, but something about that moment came alive for me. I began to see a very clear correlation between my hobby of pipe smoking and my vocation as a pastor.

You see, as a pastor, words are my living. Prayers, stories, questions – all these require spoken words in order to be shared with my congregation. And too often, at least to me, my words come out like that smoke on the plain – thin, airy, easily dispersed, leaving little impact or lasting aroma. Perhaps no one else can tell, but they don’t need to. I can because I’m looking for the signs.

I started pipe smoking as a way to relax, mediate and pray. I joke that I got the idea from God in Revelation 5:8 where the Elders are holding golden bowls of incense (a mixture of burning leaves and herbs) which rise up to God as a pleasing smell, a symbol of the prayers of the saints. I liked the idea and used pipe smoking as a way to help me focus of prayer. Obviously, this is not for everyone – I’m just sharing my experience.

In any event, my personality requires a lot of quiet time to process thoughts and form ideas, and when I don’t tend to that inner fire through prayer, meditation, scripture reading and study the fire stays at a surface level, it doesn’t begin to touch the deep things in me. This results in airy words. Those aren’t the kind of words I want to say. We have enough of those kinds of words already. I want to speak and write the sort of words that hang in the hollow, that have substance and weight. I want to release words that will flavor the environment with the fragrance of Heaven. And in order to speak those kinds of words I have to be pressed down deep into the interior life through the disciplines mentioned above. In 2,000 and more years of history, God’s people have found no shortcuts to intimacy and relationship. It is ‘a long obedience in the same direction’ as Eugene Peterson puts it.

So I have an image now, a way of envisioning things that helps me keep my focus on the right things. When I realize my words as a pastor are more me than Him, more American than Heavenly, then I know I have too long neglected my inner fire. I need to tamp down my soul and breathe deep the Holy Spirit. For I am convinced that if my words are pungent with prayer, are thick with the Grace of God, and carry the fragrance of Heaven then people will notice and they will respond.

As always, thank you for reading.

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