Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Fragrance of God

St. Thomas Episcopal Church ~ Hollywood, CA
Dear Friends,

I call it the “fragrance of God.” It’s in the churches that just seem to seize my soul and draw me into His Presence. The powerful “ecclesiastical odor” from my childhood church, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, is embedded in the deepest recess of my memory and I can recall it today. A dampness from the Gothic stone and concrete structure mingled with the scent of ancient wood pews and furniture polish. The paper of hundreds of hymnals and prayer books. The lingering aroma of beeswax candles and the perfumed scent of altar flowers. This fragrance of God is in the large “high” churches I sometimes visit. It’s in the California Missions. It’s in the Monastery chapels. It’s always the same; it’s always different. Many times there’s the distinctive sweet fragrance of incense weaving in and out of the ecclesiastical aroma. This unique combination of scents can only be found in the church but not in all churches. 

The church I planted in Santa Clarita had rented the cafeteria in a public school for our Sunday services and the ecclesiastical odor in that church was always the aroma of sour milk. A church that NHFC rented also rented their multi-purpose sanctuary to an athletic group who used it for  cheerleading activities. When I would come into the church sanctuary on the morning after they were there, it smelled like a locker room. One might argue that this too was the “odor of God” but the smell of teenage athletes that filled the sanctuary didn’t take me into the presence of God as does the lingering fragrance in an old church.

The phrase “smells and bells” is used affectionately by those who attend Catholic, Orthodox and “high” liturgical Protestant churches and is often used derisively by those who don’t. But I’ve always thought it funny how we Protestants decry the “smells and bells” as being “too Catholic” while we simply swap the scents. One Pentecostal church pastor, who often mocked the use of incense in liturgical churches, had installed industrial-strength room deodorizers in our sanctuary. It always smelled like we were worshiping in an airport restroom. Most Protestants would be scandalized at the thought of burning religious incense in their homes and yet they fill their home with the fragrance of Yankee Candles. We Protestants have looked down on Catholic practices as we’ve merely swapped out their “frankincense and myrrh” for our “french vanilla”!

Yesterday I received a lighting catalog from a church supply company who wants to sell me theater lighting for our megachurch, and I saw pages of special effect stage lighting and fog machines that they say will “promote reverence.” When I was a young acolyte in our Episcopal church, we also had special effect lighting that promoted reverence – at the beginning of every service, I would light those fourteen candles on the altar! But megachurches today employ lighting technicians and according to the church supply company, their lighting controllers can turn a worship experience into “a major Vegas-style extravaganza” and that rapidly changing colors in your worship service is “what it takes to get a crowd energized and on its feet.” I understand how that dazzling lighting effects would appeal to some megachurches, but in many thousands of churches across the Nation, all it takes to get a congregation to its feet is a hymn or the sound of a bell. 

My personal preference is for the small church. While we have gone through many changes in the past ten years, New Hope Family Church is, and always will be, a “family” church. I also have a deep appreciation for the “smells and bells.” The Jewish Messiah and His twelve disciples worshiped in a place lit by candles and where the sweet fragrance of incense and tinkling sound of bells filled the Temple. I’m spiritually drawn to the liturgical worship-style of the ancient Christian church and to churches where the fragrance of God permeates the sanctuary. But I’ve been to small churches where the dry and spiritually lifeless liturgy put me to sleep and have been to small churches where the liturgy brought me into the presence of God and moved me to tears. I’ve been to megachurches where the Vegas-style show entertained the spectators and a ten minute feel-good message never mentioned Jesus and I’ve attended huge churches where the congregation was engaged in worship and the Gospel was preached. 

There’s a mind-set among denomination leaders that “bigger is better” and megachurches are “best of all,” while a small town rural pastor argues that, “Megachurches are sprawling wastelands of Christianity.” Both positions are derisive and hurtful for the family of God. Big churches are not the best. Small churches are not the best. Catholic churches are not the best. Protestant churches are not the best. The best church is the one who honors God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Big or small, liturgical or non-liturgical, what matters is whether the church has remained faithful to the Gospel message and is focused on Jesus’ “great commission” to save souls and change lives. Matthew 28:19 Everything else is just personal preference. 

My church may smell like beeswax candles, your’s may be filled with the aroma of coffee from the lobby espresso machine. You may love to sing old hymns or prefer contemporary praise and worship songs. Incense may bring you into a place and time of reverent worship or give you a pounding headache. We all have different worship-style preferences and that’s why the bottom line is this: the best church is for you is the one that takes you into the Presence of God. Amen?

On a personal note: My parents met in this church and were married here in 1948. I was baptized in this church, confirmed on May 7, 1961 and was an acolyte here for ten years serving in over 500 services. I carried the cross down this aisle many hundreds of times. It was here that God called me to be a pastor. To God be praised!

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