Lisa Joy Samson

Lisa Samson

“I met the Surgeon General. He offered me a cigarette.”
Rodney Dangerfield

My enchantment with smoking started after my love for Jesus began but not by much.

I asked Jesus into my heart at three, experienced ecstasy at nine although I had no idea what to call that, and first puffed on one of my brother’s Marlboros at ten. Sitting atop the old cedar picnic table, I planted my feet on the bench, struck the match and held it to the end of that Red. I sucked in as though a grape Slurpee pooled on the other end and immediately began hacking, gagging, and gasping. Doubled over, I yanked open the sliding glass door with most of my bodyweight and coughed my way back into the paneled family room. For the next two minutes my brother watched with compassionate knowing as I coughed some more, eyes overflowing with tears.

That was that, I figured. Why would anybody want to do that?

But smoking looked so cool on TV and in the movies. There must have been something to it besides the accoutrement of long cigarette holders, handcrafted table lighters, marble ash trays, feather boas and bejeweled bosoms.

Maybe when I’m older it won’t hurt so much.

Older wasn’t much older. Two years later Salems from the machine up at the grocery store constituted my next experiment, this one with a side of menthol. I pilfered the change in my mother’s purse and walked the mile between our split-level home in suburban Baltimore and the Giant grocery store experiencing a craving I couldn’t explain. Looking both ways, I slid the coins into the slot and jerked the round knob. The green foiled pack slid down to its resting place in the tray. It wasn’t there for long. In fact, it made it into my windbreaker pocket in record time.

Around the side of the store, I settled on the curb, knees high, and fired one up. I was ready this time. I inhaled only slightly. I didn’t cough. I tried it a few more times. It didn’t deliver. I wondered why I wanted one so much. I threw out the pack and walked home with theft on my conscience for having liberated the change from Joy Ebauer’s pocketbook without her blessing.

Jesus must have been with me even then because I asked him along for the ride some years before. Unfortunately, he wasn’t really saying much directly at this time because I knew for sure that any voice inside of me was either my sinful self, the devil tempting me, or the Holy Spirit chastising me. Anything else had to come directly from the Bible because the Bible was the only trustworthy thing on the entire planet for knowing what God thinks. I walked in this darkness, this poverty of soul and spirit not knowing my inheritance as one created and loved by the Creator for many years. Incapable of asking any question outside the realm of acceptability because I was already given the answer by somebody else, somebody in “authority,” I was prey to misinformation and the hunger for power, influence, and fame of others.

Torn apart by the typical image of duality to which even Fred Flintstone wasn’t immune, angel on one side, demon on the other, or more precisely, evil me born depraved or the Holy Spirit who only came around to rebuke, I was deaf to the voice of Jesus speaking to me in tones of understanding, compassion, and love.

As I grew, assuming behaviors with which I would struggle like we all seem to do, smoking jockeyed for position as one of the first in line of “besetting sins”. Smoking graduated from the experimental to the habitual exam week of my final semester in college when I asked for one of my roommate’s Salems. On the back steps of the apartment, the stars of Virginia shining down on a late April night, five years of work coming to a close, I sat by myself. Feeling the nicotine and naughtiness, I decided I liked this! I wouldn’t smoke forever, not even remotely long enough to develop emphysema or cancer, but graduation was a week away and I was ready to live my life on my own terms. This was just the start.

It wasn’t long before buying packs seemed like the thing to do. Benson and Hedges became my first brand because of the classy gold pack. Salems came next because I realized menthols were my jam. After that, Marlboro Light Menthols prevailed for the next twenty years. Cigarettes are like sneakers. You keep trying until you find your brand. Eventually, I was fooled into thinking American Spirits weren’t quite so abominable. They were “natural”.

My smoking became so synonymous with failure it felt like I was walking around with Jesus on one shoulder and a pack of cigarettes on the other.

Jesus said, “Bring the children to me and don’t impede them from God’s kingdom.” My cigarettes said, “Sit the kids in front of the TV and sneak around the side of the house and have a smoke.”

Jesus said, “Go into all the world.” My cigarettes said, “Go to the grocery store for milk you don’t need and have a ciggie along the way.”

I didn’t want to pass along my filthy habit, but like kids do, they eventually realized what was going on and I decided that being open about my smoking was better than trying to deceive them all the time. Due to my upbringing and the Surgeon General, I saw my smoking as spiritual and moral breakdown. Jesus said, “Be Holy like your Father in Heaven is holy,” and I was pretty sure God wasn’t firing up a Lucky when stressed. Wasn’t it better they knew what was really going on? That I wasn’t just trying to get away from them?

I still don’t know the answer to that. The obvious solution was just to quit smoking.

One day, a single sentence changed all that.

Sometimes, when you only allow God to chastise you, the Divine Voice of Grace and Freedom ends up coming out of the mouth of somebody else. But you still know it when you hear it.

Having smoked on and off, but mostly on, for over twenty years, I was bemoaning that fact to my friend Claudia Love Mair, the Ragamuffin Diva, my “me too” friend, soul sister, and the person who believes in God and love and Jesus and hope far more than I was capable of at the time.

We sat on the back deck of my old Victorian home in Lexington, Kentucky, a place stiff in the joints with boundary issues at every window. After listening patiently to my tirade against my own insufficiency and imperfection not to mention willful participation in something clearly terrible for me, she smiled at me. “Why don’t you just invite Jesus to join you?”

I laughed.

“I’m serious!” she cried in a voice more music than speech. “If Jesus won’t join you for a cigarette, he’s not down to be with you in any other struggle you’re facing.”

Claudia knew that Jesus. I was too busy being lashed into shape by his temple whip.

“Seriously?”

“Just give it a try.”

I knew she was right. Jesus would have hung out with the sinners and enjoyed a cigarette from time to time, a glass of wine here and there. He would know how to do the all the fun dances at the wedding receptions.

“But I’m pretty sure,” I said, just to make clear where I really stood, “that Jesus would have bummed cigarettes. He wouldn’t have gone around buying packs.”

I thought about Claudia’s suggestion throughout the day. If a human fundamentally believes in God’s grace, there was nothing about Claudia’s suggestion that didn’t make sense. The next morning, I set up another chair on the back deck facing mine. I lit up My American Spirit and whispered the words, “Okay, Jesus, you’re welcomed to have a seat.”

It felt silly and weird and I really hoped James my next door neighbor wasn’t perchance looking out of his kitchen window, but I said “Yes” despite any of that.

Yes, I am needy.

Yes, I don’t have it figured out like I hoped I would by now.

Yes, you have to take me as I am, Jesus, because I have nothing else to give you. And here it is. The cigarettes are just the starting gun to the mess that is being offered here, you got that? Is this a journey you even want to handle?

It was the first time I allowed myself to glimpse a small portion of the unconditional love of Christ for me, because, of course, God’s grace and mercy applied to all of creation, except for Lisa. She had to earn it by proving herself. And that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. So.

Love me here, Jesus, and if you do, you can have the rest. It isn’t always pretty or nice. It doesn’t always do things cheerfully. It’s as judgmental and self-righteous as it gets. It needs more than dent repair and buffing. It might need a full engine overhaul, but a car can’t fix itself and I have to admit, neither can I.

I’m pretty sure Jesus showed up that day. I had to take that first day, that fresh new chair, on faith. It was scary because it was crazy, but Jesus likes us crazies. He understands what it’s like to be looked at askance, ridiculed and questioned. He was chased, chased down, captured, executed and still maintained love for all. One of his lambs smoking a cigarette?

No big whoop, Lisa.

I lit up, took a sip of my coffee and smoked the entire cigarette. I pictured Jesus across from me, skin of caramel, beard dark and curly. I sat and smoked, wondering why in the world it had to be so hard all the time, why it is we walk around with minds so restless we cannot simply sit, be still, and know the presence of Christ is with us. I knew one thing, though. If the presence of Christ wasn’t with me when I was smoking, when I was exhibiting my inexplicable need to harm myself, it wasn’t with me at all.

In that moment, I knew Jesus had been with me all along. I wasn’t crazy for doing what I was doing. I just needed his company in a way I never had before. In the moment. Being fragile and stupid and reckless. Just as I am.

I know now that the biggest mistake I ever made with Jesus was to think of him as the choosy sort. Jesus has no pride. Jesus possesses only massive amounts of glory he longs to share and unlimited love he’s willing to bestow on anybody who wants it. He will redeem anything and anybody desiring his brand of redemption. Trials into gold. Joy in the morning. The old person into the new. Good common sense into reckless generosity. And a pack of American Spirits into precious communion and loving acceptance.

If I wanted power over other people, to be more correct than loving, or have more abundance than generosity, I needed to find another master, one with flags and bombs, tidy thought systems that didn’t allow for honest questions, the psychological means to make friends enemies, fearful threats and eternal consequences. I needed to stick with the AK47 Jesus, the Jesus who took over governments, the Jesus with muscles, winning arguments, egoic shaming, and tough love. The Jesus whose victories looked suspiciously like those of the establishment, be it the government, the church, or the neighborhood association, would have been more acceptable if I wanted to view my life as a battle to be won. The problem was, I didn’t want any of that anymore. I’d been lulled to sleep by such empty promises most of my life, promises the communists were taking over, the stupid liberals (the filthy liars) hated me and my children, and God was mad and taking names. Don’t be one of those names, Lisa. It felt like suffering, it felt like fear, it felt like smarm. It felt like death.

For most of my life I thought Jesus was the winsome bait designed to lure unsuspecting human beings into relationship with a God who was prickly and narcissistic. Jesus was the older brother who would tell Dad first what you did and take the brunt of the initial reaction. Who was this God? And why did everybody let this God act so terribly against beings that were mere wisps compared to His inherent might, His unspeakable glory?

Jesus told me a different story.

For so long I couldn’t hear him except for some muffled break-throughs due to the sleep of fear that overcame me. But it turned out that for all those years I was only relying on him for willing sacrifice and the occasional first responder to my most urgent prayers, he was busy keeping my parts together for the future when my sleep would abate because of my cry of desperation from dreamland. Jesus told me a different story about God, I realized, because when Jesus said, “If God clothes the lilies, will you not your every need be supplied?” he meant every word. He knew this Loving Creator could be welcomed and assumed into the existence of every part of Creation, including human beings. And when he called God his “Abba,” his Dad, he meant that, too. It changed everything for all who wished to follow him away from the genocidal deity that killed children and kept score like the bitter relative never pleased by anything anyone ever gives her.

What did Jesus know that I didn’t?

God is love.

That’s what he knew. I’m sure of it.

I decided to follow Jesus because his view of God supported my own sneaking suspicions that the Creator’s very nature was beautiful and loving, first and foremost, forever and ever, that the Source of Everything had been maligned since humans were capable of drawing whacked-out conclusions. Jesus said, “God loves the world,” and he meant every word.

I would follow this Jesus to the edge of everything I ever knew and over it if the truth was found in the fall.

For the next couple of years, I had my morning cigarette with Jesus. He came. Each morning, a leaf would be present on his chair. No matter where I was, the back deck, the porch out front, down in the stairwell to the basement of the tea shop I owned at the time, a leaf, sometimes curled and brown, sometimes green, sometimes crimson, awaited me.

In sharing my lack of wisdom, my low-grade addiction, even my enjoyment of the habit with Jesus, he shared himself. I still am in wonder just thinking about grace so beautiful, so real.

In that time of my life, I wasn’t attuned to the inner reality we possess but haven’t been taught or encouraged to access for obvious reasons by those in authority. Jesus didn’t speak back like he does now, but that wasn’t the point. He came until my life began to fall apart and spin. I stopped having my cigarette at the chair. I put my faith in other things, things that were already staples in what I thought would deliver deliverance: more money, more medication, more control. And the leaves from the hands of my first love stopped falling upon deserted chairs. I was heading off on my own.

I thought so, anyway. I should have known the truth, that when Jesus stated, “I am with you always,” he meant it. Falling leaves or no, Jesus always means what he says.

(c)2019 Lisa Joy Samson 
https://lisajoysamson.com