The cigarette smoke clung to my denim jacket. I sat on the front step of my church, a man named Hank sitting beside me. His friend Trish stood in front of us. They each took long drags of their cigarettes, the smoke curling into the winter sky. Our church service was starting, but I saw them slip outside and wanted to see if they were okay.
Turns out they just needed a smoke break. There was snow on the ground, and I was cold as I sat down on the cement stair. But Hank was telling me how he hadn’t been to church in awhile.
“I haven’t seen you in a few weeks!” I told him. “I’m glad you came back.”
“Me too,” he said. “I was going to come last week, but didn’t feel like it.”
I nodded. I understood that. Some weeks I didn’t feel like coming to a church service either.
He motioned to his bag. “But I brought my New Testament with me today.”
I was delighted. “What’s your favorite part? I’m reading Luke right now. I like Luke.”
“I’m in the Acts of the Apostles. There’s some wild things that happen there.”
“I hear you.”
I could hear one of our pastors preaching, the sound muffled through the front door, and I knew the service was well underway and we were missing most of it. My skin felt tight and itchy. I kept thinking about how I could get them to come back inside. Wasn’t it more important to hear the preaching and be inside?
Then Trish started talking. “I was an actress and a comedian, you know. Before life changed. Before life got harder.”
“I didn’t know that,” I told her.
She took another drag from her cigarette. “I had money. I was doing well for myself. Things can change sometimes. They can change quick.”
She tossed her cigarette into a snowbank and smiled at me. We talked for a while longer, then Trish decided to take a walk and Hank decided to come back inside. There was nothing spiritual about our conversation, not really. Neither of them decided to confess Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Neither of them shed a tear. But I was left with the profound sense that despite the fact that we were sitting outside the walls of our church building, Jesus was sitting right beside us.
Sometimes I can become so consumed with doing things the “right” way, that I can miss out on how God is working in His own way right in front of me. Of course, I want to be holy and disciplined, and there’s something beautiful to that – but Jesus isn’t always found in the four walls of a church. Sometimes He’s also found outside sitting next to those who are taking a smoke break.
A few weeks ago, another man came up to me before church service. I told him, “I’m so glad you’re here!”
His eyes filled as he said, “I didn’t think I was good enough to come here today. I almost turned around and walked back home.”
I looked at him with all the compassion in my heart and said, “None of us are good enough. That’s the good news. We each get to come exactly as we are, and you belong here.”
One of the things I love most about Jesus is how He seemed to purposefully gather the most ragtag group of people as His followers. They had all messed up more times than they could ever count. Even as they followed Him, they made mistake after mistake. And yet, the more time they spent with Jesus, the more they began to look like Him. Each of them belonged to Him.
Jesus meets us inside the walls of our churches and outside of them on smoke breaks. You might feel like a ragtag follower, like you don’t belong, like you need to polish up before you enter the building of the church you call home.
But you belong to Jesus and so do I.
Later that night, I sat on my porch and watched the sun dip slowly. I still smelled like cigarettes from Hank and Trish earlier that morning. I lifted up a heart of gratitude to the Living God who was holding the setting sun and at the same time holding me and Trish and Hank.
Church isn’t always a sermon. Sometimes it’s a smoke break with two friends whose lives have looked nothing like mine. Jesus was right there – inside our church service and outside too.
Each of us belongs to Him.