Moving!

Yup. We’re officially moving the family to Tulsa this weekend. Grace Lutheran Church has most graciously and awesomely decided to buy the house we love here and let us live there until we sell our house in Enid and then buy the Tulsa home from them.

We are so excited to be moving and getting back together in the same town again. This time apart has been hard on all of us.

Incense in Christian Worship

What follows is a brief essay especially written for the people of Grace Lutheran, reflecting the current practices here and the use of incense in the past. I wrote it to organize my thoughts and presentations to the people here, many of whom are used to some use of it, but need to be reminded of the hows and whys. I would appreciate comments and feedback, though.

 Incense in the Bible

Incense used in Judeo-Christian worship is usually a resin from the Boswellia tree, called frankincense, or a resin from the the myrrh plant. Incense was used historically for many purposes. Sometimes the resin was blended with essential oils to alter or augment the natural scent and then blended with olive oil to make anointing oil and perfumes, as scent for soap and cleaning, as an air freshener to cover unpleasant smells and for religious purposes. However, incense was also quite expensive, and its religious use was the dominant.

God called incense a pleasing aroma to him (Lev. 6:15) and commanded that it be burned in the Temple worship instituted with Moses (Exodus 30). The instruction given to Aaron, the first priest was, ”

On it Aaron shall burn fragrant incense. Morning after morning, when he prepares the lamps, and again in the evening twilight, when he lights the lamps, he shall burn incense. Throughout your generations this shall be the established incense offering before the Lord. On this altar you shall not offer up any profane incense.” (Exodus 30:7-9)

An altar was located in the holy place, directly outside the Holy of Holies and incense was burned from dawn to dusk. Incense was the ultimate sacrifice, in that it was taking something of intrinsic value and burning it away. A comparable act would be to take gold or cash and burn them in the offering plate!

Scripture associates incense with prayer. Psalm 141 states, “Let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” What is notable about this is the subtle direction away from animal sacrifices, toward the kind of living sacrifice Christians offer. Our praise and incense take the place of the blood of bulls and animals, pointing to the pure sacrifice of Christ on the cross once for all.

There is no disputing that incense was used in the Old Testament worship. But what about the New Testament? Is it a work of the Law that is done away with? Should it have disappeared from the earth like the sacrifice of animals in the Temple?

In the Revelation of St. John, the Apostle sees a vision of Heaven, with the saints assembled before the throne of God. Significantly, as the prayers of the faithful are said on earth, an Angel bears a thurifer and our prayers are combined with the incense: “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.” (Rev. 8:3-4 ESV) St. John also shows the heavenly sights to indicate a truth we often miss: the presence of God in heaven is repeated or symbolized or enacted within our worship and sanctuaries on earth. When we gather around Word and Sacrament, Heaven comes to earth and our worship and praise is combined with the worship of all the saints and angels in heaven.

We are not sure exactly when early Christians began using worship in the Christian liturgy. While it is possible, and perhaps even likely it was used from the beginning, actual evidence dates to the late third century. This was the first time it is mentioned explicitly in writings we have that survived the centuries.

What Benefits Does Incense Give?

Christian worship is bodily worship. God created this world and called it good. Our bodies and sense are all creatures and gifts of God. In the incarnation of Jesus, He took up our human flesh and sanctified it. Christian worship is not just in the mind, but uses the body.

Even as Jesus saved us with His body, using His body nailed to the cross and His blood spilled for our sins, we use our bodies and senses to worship Him. We use hearing and our ears to hear His word of forgiveness and His Gospel. We use our mouths and tongues and speech to praise Him in song and responding to His Word. Our bodies stand at attention and respect when the Words of Christ are read. We kneel and bow to the cross and in prayer, worshiping with our bodies even as we worship with our spirits and minds and tongues. Our sanctuary is filled with images of Christ and His work in terms of His body on the cross, images of his miracles and saints, so that our eyes may be filled with Him and worship him by looking.

And when incense is burned, even our noses and sense of smell is involved in worshiping him! When the incense burns we smell the aroma and it reminds us of our prayers rising to heaven. We smell it and remember the incense burning in the presence of God as described in Revelation.

But I Don’t Like It!

Perhaps you don’t care for the smell. Or perhaps it makes you feel “too catholic.” Maybe it reminds you of bad events or times. It’s natural, after all. Our sense of smell and emotions and memories are intimately connected. A unique or strong smell can immediately bring up memories.

It’s hard to argue with emotions. But we also must remember that God is in the healing business, and while scents have strong emotional connections, almost anything and everything in this world can have bad or hurtful connotations and memories and associations. The goal of our God and the faith is to bring true and complete healing for all these things. Jesus Christ came to take all our human pains and ills, all our hurts and sins and cleanse them. He provided not only healing physical healing to some, but promises complete healing, of body and spirit beginning and now and being made complete in the resurrection.

What’s more, our worship is not about “likes” and “dislikes.” We do not worship with the liturgy because we “like” it. We do not have certain readings from Scripture because they are our favorite, nor do we skip readings we don’t like. Certain hymns may have great memories and evoke strong feelings for us, but even hymns and music are not written and included only to move us emotionally, but to direct our spirits and minds and attention to God, to praise Him with the gift of music, which is a natural and intrinsic gift we have as His creatures!

When we use incense in worship, we do not use it because we like it, but because it is part of the historic worship which we have inherited from the thousands of generations of Christians that have gone before us. Lutherans in Scandinavia and Germany used incense for hundreds of years (and some still do). Even more, Christians used incense 1000 years before the doctrines Luther opposed were present in the Church. Saying it is “too catholic” because the Roman Catholic church uses it often is like saying the Nicene Creed is too catholic because they say it every Sunday too. Or vestments!

But I Still Don’t Like it. I’m Most Certainly Allergic

Some pastors are too! There is some debate on how incense allergies work and what if what you feel is an irritant or an allergy, but it can be annoying, to say the least. We can do several things to mitigate and ease any bad effects.

Using natural charcoal without any additives will help tremendously, providing very little smoke and no chemical fumes. Furthermore, a hypoallergenic form of incense which minimizes additives and “flavors,” especially using the pure frankincense and/or myrhh will ease discomfort. Sitting near the back of the congregation may be required. Lastly, we will publicize in the bulletin, in the e-blast, and on facebook which Divine Services will feature incense. As a last resort, you may avoid those services and attend another. When there are two services on a given day, one will always be without incense.

Conclusion

Using incense is a historic, traditional practice. Even more, it is biblical! When we use incense at Grace Lutheran Church we are not trying to pretend to be something we are not. We are expressing the teaching and desires of the Lutheran Confessors and Luther himself to retain all things in the worship which are not opposed to the Gospel.

Incense is used to help all of our worshipers worship God with the whole body and senses: with sight and sound, touch and smell and taste as we receive the Eucharist. While not everyone may “enjoy” it, we pray that all will appreciate its biblical, traditional, sacramental and beautiful roots and intent.

 

Crucifixes in the Lutheran Church

Grace Lutheran Church has crucifixes everywhere. There are few crosses around here missing the body of our Lord depicted on it. It’s one of the thousands of things I love about this place and the saints who worship here. For those who are unconvinced or wondering how “Lutheran” they are, here is a worthy FAQ from the LCMS website about it.

Q: Is the use of crucifixes a Roman Catholic practice? Doesn’t the empty cross provide a better symbol for Lutherans? How does the LCMS feel about using a crucifix in church? [Note: A crucifix is a cross with a statue of the crucified Christ on it].

A: A common misunderstanding among some Lutherans is the opinion that a crucifix, or the use of a crucifix, is a “Roman Catholic” practice. The history of Lutheranism demonstrates that the crucifix was a regular and routine feature of Lutheran worship and devotional life during Luther’s lifetime and during the period of Lutheran Orthdoxy. It was also the case among the founding fathers of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. If you were to visit most of the original congregations of the LCMS here in the United States you would find lovely crucifixes adorning their altars, and in addition, beautiful statues on the altar of Christ and the four evangelists, or other such scenes. There is nothing uniquely Roman Catholic about this.

Many Lutherans and Lutheran congregations use crucifixes. Crucifixes are used in the chapels of both of our seminaries and our International Center. Lutheranism has always considered the crucifix to be a powerful reminder of the sacrifice our Lord Jesus made for us and our salvation, on the cross. A crucifix vividly brings to mind the Apostle Paul’s divinely inspired words, “We preach Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). Interestingly enough, while there is certainly nothing “wrong” with an “empty” cross, the practice of using an “empty cross” on a Lutheran congregation’s altar comes more from non-Lutheran sources. At the time of the Reformation there was conflict between Lutherans and Reformed Christians over the proper place of pictures, images, statues and the like in the church. Lutherans stood with historic Christendom in realizing that such art in the church was not wrong, and was a great aid for helping to focus devotional thoughts on the truths of the Word of God, no greater truth can be found that the death of Jesus Christ our Lord for the world’s salvation.

The “empty cross” is not a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, as some say, for the fact is that the cross would have been empty regardless of whether or not Christ had risen from the grave. The point to be kept clear here is that both an “empty cross” and a crucifix, symbolize the same thing: the death of Christ our Lord for the salvation of the world. Many feel that the crucifix symbolizes this truth more clearly and strikingly. That has been the traditional opinion of historic Lutheranism, until the last 50 years ago, due to the influence we will now mention. Some Lutherans began to move away from crucifixes during the age of Lutheran Pietism, which rejected much of Lutheran doctrine and consequently many Lutheran worship practices. At the time, Lutheran Pietists, contrary to the clear position of Luther and the earlier Lutherans, held that symbols such as the crucifix were wrong. This was never the view of historic Lutheranism. Here in America, Lutherans have always felt a certain pressure to “fit in” with the Reformed Christianity that predominates much of the Protestant church here. Thus, for some Lutherans this meant doing away with things such as crucifixes and vestments, and other traditional forms of Lutheran worship and piety.

It is sad when some Lutherans are made to feel embarrassed about their Lutheranism by members of churches that teach the Word of God in error and who do not share Lutheranism’s clear confession and practice of the full truth of the Word of God. Lutheranism has always recognized that the use of any symbol (even the empty cross) can become an idolatrous practice, if in any way people are led to believe there is “power in the cross” or that a picture or representation of a cross has some sort of ability, in itself, to bring us into relationship with Christ and His Gospel. Any of God’s good gifts can be turned against Him in this life and become an end in themselves. Page 22 of 22 Lutherans have never believed that banning or limiting proper artwork in the church is the way to prevent its improper use. Rather, we believe that proper teaching and right use is the best way, and the way that is in keeping with the gift of freedom we have in Christ to use all things to the glory and honor of God. Thus, many Lutherans use and enjoy the crucifix as a meaningful reminder of our Lord’s suffering and death. It might interest you to know that our Synod’s president has a beautiful crucifix adorning the wall of his office, constantly reminding him and visitors to his office of the great love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord. In short, and this is the most important point of all: there is nothing contrary to God’s Holy Word, or our Lutheran Confessions, about the proper use of the crucifix, just as there is nothing wrong with the proper use of an empty cross, or any other church symbol by which we are reminded of the great things God has done for us. We need to guard against quickly dismissing out of hand practices that we believe are “too Roman Catholic” before we more adequately explore their use and history in our own church. In Christian freedom, we use either the crucifix or an empty cross and should not judge or condemn one another for using either nor not using either symbol of our Lord’s sacrifice for our sins. Usage: We urge you to contact an LCMS pastor in your area for more in-depth discussion.

Published by: LCMS Church Information Center

Externals in the Pews and at Home

A previous post asked about externals and adiaphora and ceremony in worship. Externals and ceremony always exist, and not just with the guys wearing funny clothes up front either.

What are the externals and ceremonies the laity do? Do you sit attentively at church? Do you moan and groan and sigh when you have to stand? Sit? How do you dress and why? When you walk forward for communion how do you do it? Sauntering and strutting like a jock at high school graduation or overly pious, thinking about all the eyes that are on you and wanting to look holy? Or neither?

What about the externals of your life when you go home? Does the TV go on immediately and what sounds are filling your home? What kind of images are on your walls and in your bedroom and under your eyelids? What do you do the first thing upon waking? Do you make the sign of the cross or do you make another sign at your alarm clock or grab your phone and look at Facebook (this I do all to often, to my shame!). Tertullian, writing at the turn of the 2nd Century wrote, “At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.”

How do we live and move and have your being, knowing in Whom we live, in Whom we move and in Whom we have our being? (Acts 17:28)

July 4th and You Christian Readers

On this Independence Day let us thank God for the religious freedoms we have. Let’s thank God for this nation and its prosperity. Let’s thank God that we are free from warlords and hit squads and secret police and tyrants who take our land and families, who inter us or tax us to death. Seriously. Sometimes we think we have it bad, but our tax rates are low compared with Europe and we are free from violence compared with Africa and we have many blessings.

Above all, for you who are Christian, remember that this world is not our home. That our nation is temporary, and your place it in even briefer. Our Kingdom is not of this world, and we dare never forget it. Give me liberty, sure. I’d rather have the true freedom of Christ and His Kingdom.

You who are Christian, remember this is not a Christian country. None are or have ever been, at least according to Jesus. His Kingdom is not of this World. Remember that rights come and go, leaders come and go, money comes and goes, but we have the promise of resurrection and eternity in the Kingdom that remains.

Set of your fireworks and sing and give thanks to God you have it easy here. So many do not.

 

The Visitation

We had a nice crowd for the Feast of the Visitation today at Grace.  About thirty people gathered in the side chapel and we worshiped using Divine Service Setting Four. One hymn, a short homily, and the Eucharist, thanks be to God. A light lunch followed, served Grace-style. If you want to know what that means, it means beer. The Visitation is an odd duck of a Festival. A Chief Festival, according to The Lutheran Service Book, that is, a Feast of Christ, but it falls at an odd time. John the Forerunner’s Birth is celebrated on June 24. This feast, after the Octave of his birth, narrates an event which takes place before the birth. It is one of the few Feasts which does not fall on the day Tradition remembers it happening. Of course, the Post Vatican II three-year lectionary transferred it to earlier in the Spring so the dates would match up. So what happened? The Blessed Virgin Mary, carrying the Son of God in her womb met her relative Elizabeth, carrying St. John the Forerunner in her womb. The both prophesied and we learned that Mary is Blessed, and all generations will call her blessed. It’s Scripture, after all. But the Feast is about Jesus, about His indwelling, about the Forerunner’s recognition of Him hidden in the womb, and about Christ visitation with us, hidden under bread and wine.