Incense Alleviates Depression

Another interesting post from “-C” who pulled it off the wire.

Incense is psychoactive: Scientists identify the biology behind the ceremony
New study in the FASEB Journal shows how and why molecules released from burning incense in religious ceremonies alleviate anxiety and depression

Religious leaders have contended for millennia that burning incense is good for the soul. Now, biologists have learned that it is good for our brains too. In a new study appearing online in The FASEB Journal (, an international team of scientists, including researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, describe how burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression. This suggests that an entirely new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses.

“In spite of information stemming from ancient texts, constituents of Bosweilla had not been investigated for psychoactivity,” said Raphael Mechoulam, one of the research study’s co-authors. “We found that incensole acetate, a Boswellia resin constituent, when tested in mice lowers anxiety and causes antidepressive-like behavior. Apparently, most present day worshipers assume that incense burning has only a symbolic meaning.”

To determine incense’s psychoactive effects, the researchers administered incensole acetate to mice. They found that the compound significantly affected areas in brain areas known to be involved in emotions as well as in nerve circuits that are affected by current anxiety and depression drugs. Specifically, incensole acetate activated a protein called TRPV3, which is present in mammalian brains and also known to play a role in the perception of warmth of the skin. When mice bred without this protein were exposed to incensole acetate, the compound had no effect on their brains.

“Perhaps Marx wasn’t too wrong when he called religion the opium of the people: morphine comes from poppies, cannabinoids from marijuana, and LSD from mushrooms; each of these has been used in one or another religious ceremony.” said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. “Studies of how those psychoactive drugs work have helped us understand modern neurobiology. The discovery of how incensole acetate, purified from frankincense, works on specific targets in the brain should also help us understand diseases of the nervous system. This study also provides a biological explanation for millennia-old spiritual practices that have persisted across time, distance, culture, language, and religion—burning incense really does make you feel warm and tingly all over!”

Briefly: Incense and Worship

I remember when I first realized that Roman Catholics burned incense in church. I had been in Catholic parishes before, but never during worship. I was impressed by how holy they looked and how good they smelled…but never knew why their churches smelled so much better than Lutheran churches.

When I finally figured out why–in high school–I was shocked. All I could think of was passages such as “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father, only he sacrificed and made offerings at the high places (1 Kings 3:3);” or, “A people that provoketh me to anger continually to my face; that sacrificeth in gardens, and burneth incense upon altars of brick (Isaiah 65:3 KJV). Burning incense was what the wicked do in Scripture…or what pot-heads and hippies did–or so I thought.

But as with many things, the difference between the way of the Holy Trinity and the way of idolaters is more defined by what is in your heart than mere outward action. What matters is whom you burn incense to, and for what purpose. In fact, God commanded incense in the Law of Moses:

And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on [the Altar of Incense]. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, 8 and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the LORD throughout your generations. (Exo. 30:7-8).

More instructions follow. And the Old Tesament is full of references to the Altar of Incense and its use. In the New Testament, the references are few, but Revelation says, “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8)

Incense has been a part of Christian worship as far back as anyone can guess. It makes sense, considering that Christian worship was always practiced with an eye to Temple and Synagogue worship–sometimes rejecting elements, sometimes re-fashioning it Chrsitian-style, sometimes copying elements.

The use of incense is not somehow un-Lutheran either. Frankly I’m not sure when or why it ceased to be of regular use in Lutheran parishes. At the seminary incense was used, albeit infrequently. Honestly I’ve never seen it in use in an actual parish, though. I’d imagine that the congregations which use it must be quite exceptional, as most Lutherans would oppose it on some instinctual level.

Tomorrow: a clip from a secular report about the effects of incense on the body.

Luther and the Apocraphya

Here’s a brief introduction to these books of the Bible by Rev. Paul McCain:

In the past several decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in the so-called “missing books” of the Bible. The work of persons such as Elaine Pagels has made a career of trying to popularize the Gnostic Gospels and other Gnostic literature. The most dramatic discovery of Gnostic texts occurred in the upper Egyptian city of Nag Hammadi. The Gospel of Thomas was found as a complete text. These Gnostic texts are often referred to in populist works and the major media as the “missing books of the Bible.” Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. They were never regarded as being part of Christian Scripture. Gnosticism, in its variety of forms, was a mixture of pagan philosophy and Christian stories.

A whole cottage industry has developed around these “missing books,” pumping out volumes of misleading books and information, leading people to believe that somehow there has been a grand conspiracy to cover up and hide the “real facts” about Christ and Christianity. All one has to do to quickly demonstrate the difference between canonical Scripture and these false Gnostic Gospels is read them. Frankly, the Gnostic Gospels sound like something produced by a person writing under the influence of LSD or other such hallucinogens. So, set the Gnostic literature aside and let’s talk about some books that have always been in our Bibles, until the Lutheran Church moved into the English language.

There are, in fact, “missing books” of Scripture: the Apocrypha. For too many years Lutherans, like Protestant denominations everywhere, have thought that these books are only part of the “Roman Catholic Bible.” Let’s sort out the facts here, and conclude these brief remarks with an excellent introduction to the Apocryphal books by Pastor Richard Sawyer, which I’ll provide below.

But let’s first talk about how, when and why the Apocryphal books became relatively unknown to English speaking Lutherans. When the first complete edition of the Bible by the Wittenberg Reformers was published, in 1534, Luther and his colleagues included the Apocryphal books, though distinguished from the more universally accepted books, by setting them apart in their own appendix to the Old Testament. Luther’s Bible was the first major edition to have a separate section called Apocrypha. Books and portions of books not found in the Hebrew Old Testament were moved out of the body of the Old Testament to this section. The books of 1 and 2 Esdras were omitted entirely. Luther placed these books between the. For this reason, these works are sometimes known as inter-testamental books. The point is that Apocryphal books were never rejected by orthodox Lutherans, but always included in every edition of the Luther Bible and in many German editions of the Bible as well, for instance all German Bibles published by Concordia Publishing House as long as German bibles were publishedl. The Roman Catholic, at the Council of Trent, did something never before done in the history of the church: it put the Apocryphal books on the same level of authority as the rest of the books of the Bible. Why? Because it is in the Apocryphal books that Rome claims to find justification for several of its false doctrines: chiefly, the doctrine of purgatory. But this fact never dissuaded Lutheran Christians from using these books or including them in their Bibles.

In the early years of the 20th century, as Lutherans in the USA began replacing German with English in their churches, and in their Bible translations, the Apocryphal books simply went missing, indeed “missing in action” is pretty much what happened to them. In recent years, interest is increasing in these books, as Lutherans look to reclaim more of their heritage. There is no reason to allow Rome to claim these books as their own, for indeed, they are not the sole possession of Rome, or Eastern Orthodoxy. It will take a lot of careful pastoral instruction to help the members of English speaking Lutheran congregations distinguish the Apocryphal books from the Gnostic non-Biblical books, and to help explain what the Apocryphal books are, and what their traditional place in the Bible has always been in the Lutheran Church. For that matter, the Apocryphal books are featured throughout Western European culture. Perhaps the best way to help Lutherans who are unfamiliar with these books understand their place in the Lutheran Church’s own culture and hymnody is to point them to a well-known hymn from the age of Lutheran Orthodoxy: Now Thank We All Our God, written by Martin Rinkart circa 1636 when the devastating Thirty Years War was nearing its end. It depends very much on Luther’s translation of the Apocryphal book of Sirach, Chapter 50.

(from Cyberbrethren)

Who To Be at Your Funeral

Here’s a great post by semi-regular commenter “-C” at her blog Transposzing.

“He Spent His Whole Life Preparing for this Day”

That’s what she said.

Was she a wife talking about her husband on the day he won the Tour de France?

Was she a mother, talking about her son as he was about to begin his debut performance at Carnegie Hall?

Actually, she was a daughter talking about her father at his funeral.

Now I am not generally much of an appreciator of the comments or shared memories of family and friends of the deceased which are made during a funeral service. There are alot of reasons I don’t care much for it, some of which are theological, some practical, and yet other reasons are nothing but a matter of personal preference.

But that being said, I attended the funeral of a man from our church a couple of weeks ago, a brother in Christ who was a faithful member of our parish community. His wife died only a few short months ago. Near the end of the service, his children were invited forward to speak and I sat back and sighed and prepared to start counting the little mosaic tiles on the iconostasis. But his daughter’s first statement brought me back to attention.

“He spent his whole life preparing for this day,” she said.

How profound those few words are. How much they say about what our earthly life is to be … a preparation for our death. And how different this is from what the world says our life is to be (something measurable at the end by our accomplishsments, by how much wealth and stuff we have accumulated, by how well our name is known, by the “legacy” we have left).

I have thought about this statement of hers a hundred times since that day. It’s the most significant comment from a loved one I have ever heard at a funeral.

I hope I never forget it.

Wonderful Prayer

O Lord Christ, Word of the Father, who came into this world to save sinners, I beseech Thee, by the innermost depths of Thy mercy, cleanse my soul, perfect my actions, put in order my manner of life, take from me what is harmful to me, and what displeases Thee. Grant me what Thou knowest is pleasing to Thee, and profitable to me. Who but Thou alone canst make clean what was conceived of unclean seed? Thou art the Omnipotent God, Infinite in mercy, Who makest sinners just, and givest life to the dead; Who changest sinners, and they are sinners no more.

Take from me therefore whatever is displeasing to Thee; for Thy eyes can see my manifold imperfections. Stretch forth, I beseech Thee, the hand of Thy mercy, and take from me whatever in me offends the eyes of Thy goodness. In Thy hands, O Lord, are my health and my infirmity. Preserve me in the one; heal me in the other. Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed, save me, and I shall be saved: Thou Who dost heal the sick, and preserve those who are healed, Thou Who by Thy nod alone dost renew what is ruined and fallen. For if Thou wilt sow good seed in Thy field, there is need also to pluck from it the thorns of my sins by the hands of Thy mercy….

(St. Augustine, Prayer for the Gift of Tears, PL 40, Book of Meditations I, Ch. 36, col, 930)

Error, Christ and Salvation

At the Cross, all tit for tat economies of grace are obliterated. There is no “well, that’s what you get when you forget God” because God’s giving of Himself is relentless and any expression of kenotic form in a human life is ripe for the reception of grace, whatever the other ephemeral conditions. And, of course, the Giver of Grace goes where He wills and as He pleases, completely unsubject (sic) to our terms and strategies. (The Ochlophobist)

God does not grade on the curve. In fact, God does not grade our answers at all. This is not to say our answers our unimportant. The way we answer questions certainly affects our spiritual lives today and for eternity. A humble man who does not believe a seven day, 24-hour creation may be closer to the Kingdom of God than a conservative seminary professor who is proud and conceited.

God does not look for our having the answers right. There is no divine test at the end of life, no final, no essays, no scan-trons to fill out. God is not looking for us to have complete knowledge of Him (impossible anyway), nor a firm understanding of the facts as He reveals them. He doesn’t check to see if we have mastered the material. He is looking at our hearts, at who we are in there and Who is in there, if there is the Life of Christ in our hearts and minds and souls. You could even say that God looks and finds Life if we allow Him to.

Time How Long

Hippolytus died in 236 AD, two centuries after the Apostles first began preaching the faith of Christ. It seems like a very long time before, yet he claimed to know what he traditional Apostolic doctrine and practice were, enough to know how things were changing in the 3rd Century.

On the surface, a ridiculous claim, like you or me knowing the stories told in the barracks of George Washington’s Revolutionary Army. But let’s make a few assumptions and so some math:

Assume that some people in the 1-3 Centuries lived to be 80 (probably high, but not un-heard of).
Marriage and children took place by age 15 (perhaps generous, but not unusual).
Children don’t remember much until they are 15 (probably excessively conservative).

Say St. John catechized a 15 year old boy in 100 AD and died soon afterward.
This boy died in 165 AD (80 y.o.)
He could have told his children about St. John in 115 AD.
He could have told his grandchildren about St. John in 130 (when they were 15).
He could have told his great-grandchildren in 145 AD (when they were 15).
He could have told his great-great grandchildren about St. John in 160 (when they were 15). These children could have lived as long as 225 AD!

Those great-great-grandchildren could tell their great-grandchildren second hand stories of St. John and third hand stories of Jesus in 225 AD! They could say, “My great-great grandpa, who taught me about Christianity when I was 15, was converted by St. John the apostle. Or another way, in 285 AD, there might have been a man who said, “I once met an old man who told me first-hand stories about Polycarp, who sat at the feet of St. John the Apostle.”

Next we must remember that literacy rates were incredibly small and the culture was primarily oral. Oral cultures are conservative, i.e., they retain language and stories much more accurately than literary cultures do. 1

Thirdly, consider this. Hippolytus was a disciple of St. Irenaeus who died around 202 AD. St. Irenaeus testifies that St. Polycarp (ca. 69-155) catechized him in the Christian faith, and Polycarp was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. In an oral Christian culture that held to keeping the faith once-handed over from the Apostles, this makes a very close connection.

1 See this article regarding Somali oral culture; also, “Because oral societies have no effective access to writing and print technologies, they must invest considerable energy in basic information management. Storage of information, being primarily dependent on individual or collective recall, must be handled with particular thrift. It is possible to approximately measure oral residue “from the amount of memorization the culture’s educational procedures require.”[20]

This creates incentives to avoid exploring new ideas and particularly to avoid the burden of having to store them. It does not prevent oral societies from demonstrating dynamism and change, but there is a premium on ensuring that changes cleave to traditional formulas, and “are presented as fitting the traditions of the ancestors.” [21] (from Wikipedia). More scholarly citations can be found elsewhere. Go look :).

God, Others, Me and Tickling

Here’s another brilliant post by Matthew Archbold at Creative Minority Report–an excellent blog.

Why Can’t We Tickle Ourselves?

My six year old approached me this morning with what seemed by her facial expression to be an important and serious question. Why couldn’t she tickle herself, she asked. Her fingers danced without effect around her neck as her little eyebrows remained perplexed and crooked.

I don’t know, I answered. I honestly didn’t. But I told her I had an idea but I could only whisper it to her as this was the most secretest secret ever. As she slowly approached (smelling a rat and smirking suspiciously) I seized her onto my lap and tickled her neck mercilessly until she screamed with laughter. When she was completely out of breath, repeating after me that I was the greatest Dad in the whole world, and begging for mercy I finally relented and sat her up.

“I think you can’t tickle yourself because God wants me to tickle you,” I said. “And maybe just maybe God knew that if we could tickle ourselves we’d never do anything else. And you’d miss out on all the fun of tickling your brother and sisters.”

Her eyes lit up and she launched herself from my lap and ran off into the play room from where shortly after emanated insane and breathless laughter from her little brother.

It seems to me that so much of this world calls us out of ourselves and points us away from ourselves and in the direction of others. The world calls us quite simply to love. And to tickle.