He collapsed with a thud into the pew directly in front of me as the worship was about to begin. He sighed heavily. In fact, he did everything heavily... because... well... he was heavy. 325 pounds, I would guess, size 20 neck, maybe a 48" gut. He carried in his left hand a plastic bag with a CVS imprint. We stood to sing the first hymn. He didn't. Instead he reached into the bag, pulled out a bar of chocolate, cubes with caramel stuffing, and proceeded to consume the whole thing. While I tried to sing an unfamiliar Fanny Crosby hymn with lots of syncopation, "To God Be the Glory," my neighbor continued to munch away at his chocolate bar.
In the era of the Suffragettes they and a lot of preachers railed against demon rum. Didn't we sing the parody of the Salvation Army, "put a nickel in the drum, save another drunken bum"? As late as the 1940's our Methodist Church regularly asked congregants to "sign a pledge" which didn't mean money; it meant the promise not to drink beverage alcohol (that's the phrase I remember from youth fellowship, "beverage alcohol," not alcoholic beverages... and if you know why this phrasing, please tell me... well, don't; I figured it out when the phrase came to me "medical alcohol"). Not that I find alcoholism laughable: our family suffered its share of victims of demon rum, only the offending beverage was more likely to be whiskey or beer.
But back to my fellow worshiper, the fellow with the stash of chocolates: it occurred to me as I was singing Fanny's hymn that, maybe, rum isn't the only demon. How about chocolate? "Demon chocolate" has a perversely sweet ring to it! Does anyone doubt it can be an addiction?
In fairness I should report that I do not particularly like chocolate. I'll take vanilla every time. Candy never lured me much. As a child at Woolworth's I'd bypass the jelly bean counter and make a beeline for the hot dogs. You could more accurately accuse me of succumbing to demon salami.
Or being a Pepsicolic.
But back again to my fellow worshiper. In the midst of my hymn-singing and his chocolate-savoring I began to wonder why on earth he was there. I'd never seen him before. Barbara claims that, yes, she had. While my self-righteous breast was filling with contempt, guilt insinuated itself into my soul. Who knows what trouble this latter day simulation of Jabba the Hutt suffers, other than obesity? What was he looking for? A quiet place to munch chocolate? A free meal following the service, stone soup in the fellowship hall? Understanding? He did stand for the reading of the Gospel, if not for the hymns. By the time of the passing of the peace, just before the passing of the plate, he made his exit, lumbering down the central aisle with his CVS bag in hand.
Mentor and homiletics professor Paul Scherer writes (in a book I co-edited with a dozen others) about the fellow under the spell of demon chocolate, but also the rest of us who prefer vanilla, that that's not a mask they're wearing, it's a battle they're fighting. Like I have trained myself to think when someone new appears in the fitness room when I am exercising and they clearly are in need of a lot of regular visits to that place: well, they're here, and a lot of people who might benefit aren't. It's a start.
The next time the chocoholic plunks himself down in the bench in front of me, I am going to do the Connecticut Yankee unthinkable, tap him on the shoulder and say, "Welcome, glad you're here." I might even be willing to accept from him a square of caramel filled chocolate.
Well, maybe not the chocolate.