Cigarettes and Chicken

by | May 10, 2024

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of A Row with Two Chairs: Creating a Life Worth Saving

Three weeks after I decided to try Christianity, twenty-one days into my thirty-day experiment with God, the power company turned off my electricity for non-payment. Disconnecting my power made sense, as I had not been paying the bill. There were many moments like this where my old life came back to haunt my new life; I had walked away from everything. The real-world consequences come back to bite, no matter how much of a “new creation” you may be or feel like. I didn’t have the money to pay back all that I owed, at least not immediately, so I decided to tough it out until I did. 

On a Thursday night, a few days before payday at my now tightly-held job as a software developer for a web development company, I faced a decision that would shape my journey. I had run out of cigarettes and gas; I had three dollars in my pocket and lived twelve miles from the church. I had to choose gas for church or cigarettes. Three weeks into this journey, I had heard approximately six offering messages about ‘giving our financial problems to God’ but had no tangible way to know what that looked like. I chose to buy the gas to get to church to ask the pastor what I was supposed to do. 

Putting three dollars’ worth of gas in your car doesn’t move the needle much, but it got me almost enough to get to church and back. I then drove the distance, fully prepared to ask the pastor what the secret was to giving your financial problems to God. Looking back, I am almost in awe of my faith. I didn’t know it was faith, but I felt strongly enough that the answer would be there to take a risk and find it. 

Arriving at the church, I quietly walked in and found the seat I had come to choose as my own. Buried toward the front on the right side of the room, my preferred sitting location allowed me to be close enough to learn as much as possible but hopefully not stand out. At this time, I knew no one, had only spoken with the pastor at the beginning of service each week, and was doing my absolute best to remain covert, as I had no idea how people would respond to the reality of my experience. 

As the music began, people rose to their feet to sing the songs that people sing at the beginning of church, and still, there was no sign of the pastor. I didn’t even know his or anyone’s name, but I knew he was not there. As the music concluded, a different person approached the stage and introduced himself as a youth pastor. What does that mean? I wondered. Oh great, I got the rookie

He was a tall, brown-haired guy with glasses, quite the contrast from the well-polished pastor who I expected. And to top it off, it now appeared that this person would speak from the stage that night. I had chosen the wrong evening to give up my smokes to come to church. 

The service concluded at the end of his message, and people started meandering out of the building. I sat there frozen in my seat, debating whether I could ask this “youth” guy the questions I had that day. Yet I had little choice; if I left without information, my investment of coming to church for answers would be for nothing. 

I mustered up the strength to casually introduce myself, waiting until no one else was around. 

“Excuse me? Hi, I’m Scott. Um, can I ask you a question?” The youth pastor turned to me, and his calm green eyes cut through his glasses. He certainly seemed kind enough, “Hi, Scott, I am Mark. Sure, you can ask me anything you want.”

I clarified my stance with a lengthy disclaimer. “Okay, but if I ask you, I need you to not do anything about it. I have a problem that I need to know how to handle, but I am not asking you to solve it; I am asking you how I am supposed to handle it. Make sense?” He affirmed he understood with a polite nod and patiently waited for me to ask my question. 

I then explained to Mark my scenario: I had spent my last three dollars on buying gas instead of cigarettes, and I had five more days until payday. I came to church because I keep hearing people telling me to give my financial problems to God, but what did that look like for someone like me?

Mark’s entire demeanor changed. He knew this was a serious question, not a “where’s the restroom” type of question. He could see in my eyes that this felt dire to me. Seeing his reaction, I reminded him of our deal. “Now, I am not asking you to solve this for me. I need to know what it looks like for me to give this problem to God, not to you.”

Mark paused; he studied me and wrestled with how to answer. “Hmmm. Good question. You know what I am hearing in my heart right now, as you ask me? I am hearing that you should not be alone. Spend time with other godly people, and they will help you find the path.” He seemed rather pleased with his answer. 

“I don’t have any friends,” I rebutted. “I don’t know anyone that is godly or at the church. I left everything and everyone to come here.” Tears welled up in my eyes as my hidden truth began showing. Mark looked me in the eye and responded with the most profound and caring voice, “You’ve got one friend; you’ve got me.” He pulled out a Chick-fil-A free sandwich coupon and wrote his name and number on it. “I have more of these in my office. Let me go and get them. Wait right here.”

He disappeared for several minutes and returned with a stack of free sandwich coupons for Chick-fil-A. He gave me the entire stack, smiled, and offered, “Now you have food too.” I was shocked by his kindness and a bit taken aback. Another person approached him and handed him three packs of cigarettes, which he quickly gave me. “Are these the right brand?” he asked. 

They weren’t, but they would get me by until I could buy the right brand. “Yes,” I answered, not wanting to discourage the free smokes. “You bought these for me?” I was wholly confused; this was not what I expected from any church. 

“Yes. I asked someone if they would buy you cigarettes because I promised I would not solve your problem. So, they bought you these, so you would not have to choose between them and church. And here is a gas card. It should get you a full tank of gas that will get you to work a few times and back here for Saturday night. The gas card is not from me either. It is from the church. I kept my promise.” 

I drove home that night smoking a different brand of cigarettes than usual. They were a little funky, but the gift of them made them magical. I sat in the driveway of my dark house looking at a stack of free sandwich coupons, the number of my first new friend and knew I would make it to payday. I turned off the engine, leaving behind the heated car for a cold, dark house with no electricity and two hungry dogs. I was cared for that night and provided for; the risk paid off.