Thursday, January 12, 2006

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

I just received a new package of incense today. Incense! you say? Well, yes. Not the froofy stuff I burned back in the 70’s that has less than honorable associations, but frankincense. That’s right, the stuff the wise men brought to Jesus.

What for? For worship. I'm a worship pastor at a little church here in Beaverton and while the burning of incense is not a part of our tradition, we began using it about a year ago.

Which begs the question why? Why would a pastor (especially one in a tradition that has never used incense) begin using it? It’s easy to argue for its use from the Old Testament. Exodus chapter 30 gives us very specific instructions for its use and even includes the recipe! But in the New Testament, there are no instructions for its use (no condemnation either) and so many church traditions have turned away from the use of incense to enhance worship.

So, why? Is it because it smells so good? No. Well… I like the smell. Others hate it. But there in Exodus, it’s really clear that we’re not to use it as a perfume or because we like the smell. How ‘bout cuz the smoke looks really cool in the lights? Uh… that one’s probably not going to cut it either. Or this one… because cool churches are using ancient forms of worship, and we sure want to be cool. While that certainly is a trend, it’s a lousy reason to do anything we do in worship!

No, the reason is that it’s rich in symbolism. The worship of God has always been packed with symbolism. He is the great redeemer, and we are always “redeeming” things for use in worship. Our most famous one is an electric chair... I mean, a cross. This is just one that doesn’t take all that much work to redeem, because God’s people have been using incense in worship (at His instruction) for thousands of years (it sure takes a lot less work than a Christmas tree!!!)

How do we use it? At a certain point in our worship service, when we are responding to the Word of God spoken into our lives, we place the incense on the coal. I call attention to our prayers and our worship rising like the smoke of the incense; an offering of our lives going up to the Lord. I’ve also used it at the beginning of a service (Pentecost Sunday) to symbolize the Spirit of God coming into our midst. The incense also can bring a sense that this place is holy. It’s different. Set apart. Unlike Starbucks or Safeway. I think the incense heightens our awareness of that. We also leave with the smell of worship on us. Not a bad metaphor as we go back out into our community. Back to Starbucks, but with an awareness that we carry with us the smell of God. We are going into a world that needs to know Him.

One last thing. If you decide to use incense in a church that never has, you need to know about the protestant cough. The protestant cough is a phenomenon that occurs with some people who believe they are allergic to the incense. So, first of all, you need to know what’s in it. If you are buying pure frankincense, you’re buying pine pitch. You could, I suppose, use it to increase your grip on your baseball bat, or to help start your campfire. I’ve checked with some in the medical community who have assured me that it is highly unlikely that anyone could be allergic to this stuff. There have also been “tests” where no incense is put in the censer or thurible, but the cough persists! Well, at any rate, you should know that some will hate it and cough and sputter. You’ll need to figure out how to deal with that… I’m still trying.



Benjamin said...

Gotta love the Coughing and Sputtering people. I am sure they will warm up to the incense theme at some point. Until then, do you need me to pick you up anymore incense here in the great land of India????

Cheers for change!! And Incense...even if I can't smell it, I love the idea of it.


Anonymous said...

It's not the incense - it's the smoke it causes that makes me cough. While I understand the symbolism and specialness of your incense idea, I think the church should be sensitive to everyone and not have it. What about people with asthma or other health problems? Besides, if some people just don't like the smell of it, isn't that detracting from their worship experience?