Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Increasing Allergies Among Lutherans

If you want to know how many of your folks have allergies, simply try using incense and all of a sudden the hacking and coughing will soon drown out organ, choir, and every other sound in the Sanctuary. As one liturgical pundit put it: "Why is it that no one was allergic to incense prior to the Reformation?" I have been to Eastern Orthodox Churches in which thick clouds of holy smoke envelope the whole congregation, and there is no coughing or gagging. However, the least little puff of smoke from a thurible can cause coughing fits among Lutherans. Why is this?  It can only be that we Lutherans have become allergic either do to uncontrolled inbreeding or inexplicable viral contamination.

The liturgical use of incense is well documented in Scripture. Who would deny that in the Jewish Temple there was an altar of incense (and the amount of incense was profound in comparison to the couple of puffs of smake found in Churches today).  Read blessed John's vision of the Heavenly Kingdom and you find it is full of fragrant smoke which represents the prayers of the saints. Its use in Christian worship flowed from the history in Jewish worship.

Incense symbolizes the Church's offering of prayer and our reverence to God. Psalm 141 makes abundantly clear the powerful imagery of incense. ["Let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice."] So what's the big deal? Why do so many Lutherans get their noses out of joint over a little incense? 

Could it be that its association with Roman Catholocism is more of the objection than the smoke of incense? Our people can tolerate things that do not directly affect them (Pastors wearing vestments, the sign of the cross by some, chanting, and, perhaps, even the Sanctus bell.  They draw the line at incense. That might be one explanation.

Are some folks allergic to incense? I am sure there are such folks. People with asthma may be effected by it if they breath a lot of it into their lungs. How many folks are legitimately allergic?  Not as many as those who just plain do not like it in.  Perhaps this is an aesthetic issue but I wonder if it might be also a spiritual implications.  Lutherans, by the way, used incense regularly on Sunday morning in many places right up through the 18th century.

BEFORE you jump on me for ramming something down the throats of unwilling Lutherans, we use incense regularly only on the Wednesday Evening Prayer services of Advent and Lent for which we also have service opportunities when incense is not used (Compline on Mondays and the Eucharist on Thursdays).  The incense is forty feet away from most folks and the HVAC is turned off so that it does not spread the "holy smoke."  So far it has not reduced the attendance at these services.

It would seem that are more salient arguments FOR the use of incense than against. In the Old Testament, God commanded His people to offer incense in worship. Pure incense is the resin from certain trees found in limited areas of the Middle East like Ethiopia and Eritrea. In ancient times it was obtained only at great expense. In the book of Exodus (Chapter 30), God commanded Moses to make an altar of acacia wood for the burning of incense. Aaron is to burn incense morning and evening. Moses is given special instructions for making the incense to be used exclusively for the worship of God (Exodus 30:34-38). One of the many ingredients given in God's list was frankincense.  Among the gifts of the Magi given to the baby Jesus was frankincense--a gift worthy of a king.

Incense is a symbol for the prayers of God's people.  "Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. . . ." -Psalm 141:2  The people would pray outside of the Holy of Holies while the priest inside offered incense upon the golden altar.  “And the whole multitude of people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” -Luke 1:10

In the Old Testament, God established a formal, liturgical type of worship. Historic, formal liturgical Christian worship services have sometimes incorrectly been accused of being derived from Judaism. In fact, they are derived directly from the New Testament---from the worship in Heaven that the Apostle John reveals to us in the book of Revelation.  "An angel came and stood at the altar, with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden Altar before the Throne of God; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the Saints from the hand of the angel before God." -Revelation 8:3-4

In the Bible, clouds are often used as a sign of God's presence. Another characteristic of incense is that it forms a cloud. A cloud in the Bible often reveals God's presence. The Israelites were led by the pillar of cloud (Exodus 13:22). A cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled it (Exodus 40:34).   During the Transfiguration of Christ, a cloud appears and the Voice of God is heard from it (Matthew 17:5). In the book of Acts, Jesus is taken up into a cloud (Acts 1:8).

The smell of incense in a home in Bible times signaled the impending visit of someone of importance.   In ancient times incense was used to sweeten and purify the air before an important visitor arrived (only an important visitor, because incense was very expensive, and so could only be used on special occasions).  Christ taught us that He is in the midst of us wherever two or three are gathered in His Name (Matthew 18:20). Who is a more important visitor than our Creator? Our Lord may not be physically visible, but He has promised to be present. The beautiful aroma of incense reminds us to be aware of His presence.  "And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savor." -Ephesians 5:2

Our Lord was buried wrapped in incense. Incense was used when sacrifices were made in the Old Testament. When our Lord died, no incense was burned. Instead, He was buried wrapped in incense. The aromatic clouds of incense we smell during our times of worship remind us that our Lord was sacrificed for our benefit. The Apostle Paul applies this same metaphor to us when he says that we are the aroma of Christ to God. Paul says that we are God's incense. His Gift, both to Himself, and to the world.

"For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish:
To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?" -II Corinthians 2:15,16 
Quoted from www.prayerfoundation.org.

My point is this.  Why does incense cause such a knee jerk reaction of rejection among our people?  Is it that we truly have so many folks who are allergic?  Is it that we are anti-Roman enough to say here is where we draw the line and show our Protestant side?  Is it that we are so health conscious that we must remove anything that just might cause a problem?  Is it that we do not like things that remind us of the mystery of God in the way that incense does?  Is it that our personal taste (smoking or non-smoking) drives our response?

I have seen no literature to suggest that Lutherans are more prone to respiratory allergies than say the Roman Catholics or Orthodox (whose mounds of smoke make what I use look simply pitiful).  I know that there is a great deal of anti-Roman sentiment among some Lutherans but thought this was more a product of a by-gone era than today.  If we are so health conscious, why do we hug and kiss our friends or drink coffee in droves or pile up the plates at the pot lucks -- all things known to cause some health issues.  If we disdain the mystery of God's presence among us in Word and Sacrament, then why are we Lutherans in the first place?  If personal taste, then what might we sacrifice next on the altar of personal preference?  Music?  Sermons?  Lessons from Scripture? Any move from the sitting position?  Worship with other people?

Okay, I am being sarcastic.  I just want to know.  Why do Lutherans get so touchy when it comes to a puff of smoke?  You tell me... I genuinely want an answer?


Lee said...

I fully support the use of incense and I wish it was something that could be introduced into the worship life at Trinity; but, alas, I am one of those hacking people.

I am no allergy expert, but I don't think that people can actually be allergic to smoke like you would be pollen, but they can have a strong sensitivity to it that can trigger asthma and congestion. It can really be quite debilitating. For me, my allergies and sensitivities have led to nasal chronic congestion, chronic sinusitis, nasal polyps and thickening of the mucosa and has required two (and now possibly three) surgeries to correct some of the damage.

I should be noted, however, that the list of sensitivities just doesn't stop at smoke. Perfumes, scented deodorant and certain household cleaners trigger a response in me. And while I know there are some people like me in our congregations, I do think that many people suddenly get sensitive to incense simply because it is an easy excuse not to be open to its use. But for some the problems are very real.

People also have to have some responsibility for managing their own condition, too. It is not reasonable to think that the whole congregation should stop doing something simply because of a manageable sensitivity of another. If I were going to a service with incense, I would simply sit more towards the rear of the nave or even bring a mask. For example, I am very allergic to Easter lilies and usually come out of Easter Sunday with a stuffed head. I simply asked the altar guild to place the lilies in places away from the pulpit and altar. It still stuffs me up, but not as bad. Also, on their own, the congregation has been switching over from lilies to tulips, which do not affect me quite as bad.

Probably too much information, but just my two cents.

Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rev. Eric J Brown said...

It is different. That's the biggest issue. Who do we see around us doing it? If no one else is doing it (and Rome and the East count as nobodies in typical American thought) then why should we? I'd guess more than anything it is simply embarrassing and not necessary - so why go through the trouble.

Anonymous said...

Incense is basically used in the
Old Testament worship settings per
tabernacle and temple. In the New
Testament we know that most worship
settings were in the homes of the
believers. Christianity had no
church buildings until after 312 AD
when it was declared a legal religion
by Roman Emperor Constantine. So the
early Christian community gathered
around the Word and Sacrament and did
use an Old Testament worship aid.

Anonymous said...

When you discuss using incense to a group of Protestants they look at you like you said insest. The big objection as you said is because the RC's do it. In our ignorance we typically think Martin Luther overthrew everything that the Roman church practiced. No, the Lutheran reformation was very conservative. One can say, Luther did not throw the baby out with the bath water.

What's the solution? Once again it goes back to teach, teach, teach. Patience helps too. Biblical worship (liturgicl worship) incorporates our senses. We hear the Word from lectern, pulpit, and altar. We see the Body and Blood of our Lord, as well as touch and taste it. We feel the water poured over our head as God forgives us in the waters of Baptism, and marks us His child. We smell the inscense and know we are in the presence of the Lord. Hallelujah!

"Nah, Pastor. That's just too Catholic." Sigh

Janis Williams said...

Fr. Peters,

I am NOT allergic nor against incense. May I offer a possible physical reason for people's adverse reactions?

We don't live in the presence of DAILY smoke. We don't cook over an open fire. We don't heat our homes with wood fires (fireplaces are usually behind glass, for ambience not heat).

We just plain can't 'take it.' We CAN however, acclimate ourselves; smokers do. Rome and 'something different' may be major causes, but don't completely discount sensitivity (as opposed to allergy).

Sue said...

@Lutheran Desert Rat - Nice to "meet" someone with the same problem I have. (Though I'm sorry you have this problem!) I'm hypersensitive to all kinds of chemical scents, but don't have hay fever types of allergies. Incense likely would trigger my asthma. Flowers in church don't bother me at all. But sometimes I have to move because someone "fragrant" sits near me. Cigarette smoke on someone's clothes nearby also forces me to move - I can feel my lungs close up. Awful! Last year someone decided it would be "nice" to add a rose scent to the ashes on Ash Wednesday. Whoa! I could not get it washed off fast enough. I told Pastor and he made sure it was unscented this year. Other than that, I agree that the reaction of most people is due to unfamiliarity and we don't want to look like we're RC.

Mark said...

Janis is on to something.

And the fact that we don't live in the daily presence of smoke is compounded by smoking bans in restaurants and bars. I'm not complaining about the restaurant ban, only saying that in an increasingly smoke-free world, incense becomes a harder sell.

So whenever we light up in church I just smile and tell the objectors it's my only chance to smoke indoors.

Joe said...

A Catholic acquaintance tells me the real health problem isn't the incense itself, but rather the perfumes often added to it to give it a distinctive fragrance. Accordingly, I prefer pure frankincense, which seems not to trigger the same sensitivities. It has the added visual advantage of generating a lot of smoke that dissipates quickly, leaving little residual smell.

Here's a way to introduce incense to a congregation that I learned some years ago: every Saturday for several weeks, cense the church thoroughly, then open all the windows and let the room air out. By Sunday just a hint of the fragrance will be left. People will probably comment on how nice and fresh the church smells. Then when you actually use incense in the service, they will recognize the scent.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

I have a similar reaction when I hear "It only takes a spark" played on a Clavinova.

Anonymous said...

My Post #3 should end as follows:
For the first 300 years the early
Christian Church did not use incense
as they gathered around Word and
Sacrament in their homes. It seems
like incense is an adiaphora in the
New Testament Church.

Carl Vehse said...

A traditional saying among learned thurifers is, "More incense, less nonsense."

After the congregants get used to the smell of the incense in a censer, the next step for Lutherans probably will be moving up to more impressive amounts of incense, and wearing a liturgical hardhat to get into the swing of the thurible. And don't forget to check the placement of smoke detectors in the church sanctuary. Some municipal fire departments charge a fee for false alarms.

Now no one is claiming that Lutheran thurifers here on earth could reproduce the heavenly majesty of the angelic thurifer with the golden censer containing "much incense" as described in Rev. 8.

For incense afficionados, the famous Santiago de Compostela Cathedral thurible, called Botafumeiro (and not low-church terms like "swinging, smelly hickamajigs" or "cockamamie wrecking-ball"), is carried by eight thurifers, including a chief thurifer. Lutheran high churches that still use diminutive censers will need more trained thurifers as they upgrade to more spiritually inspiring thuribles.

And for those who prefer extended use of such thuribles, don't forget to account for the Foucault pendulum effect.

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

I would love to use incense at my congregation, but I've only been here less than a year, so it may wait for a while. I think that, like so many other things liturgical, the reason people are often against it is that it confesses the presence of the living Christ among us in the Sacrament. And, it makes the service more formal. It says, "Something sacred and mysterious is going on in this place." Notice that you don't find any incense in churches that are anti-sacramental. Incense brings the eyes and the nose into the worship of God. But since for most today worship is only a matter of the heart, and not also the body, (that is, it is purely spiritual--what, are we gnostics?), then such things are labeled as "unnecessary."

Anonymous said...

Is it too harsh to say that anyone who does not know enough to reject the argument for incense from the Old Testament simply does not understand the Kingdom of God? Forgive me if it is, but I wanted to get your attention. Suffice it to say that the same argument can be made for stoning, ceremonial washing and any number of other practices. Besides, God gave His people very precise instructions about the use of incense. Aaron suffered a family tragedy because his sons thought they would do something better than what God had ordained. So, watch out what you burn in that thingamajig.

As to the few times incense is mentioned in the New Testament, those that are not references to Old Testament practice cannot be understood as anything but symbolic.

Quite obviously there is also no prohibition against the use of incense. But can someone tell me what effect incense has on our worship or on our prayers? Is God more likely to accept them with incense than without? Or give a better answer to our prayers with than without? Or is the effect solely on those who offer or are present when the incense is burned? Is it a sacramental effect; that is, does God convey His mercy through it, or is it purely physiological (a bit of dizziness for some) or psychological? If it is the latter, is it not purely self-serving? Aesthetics? As Vysotski sang about why the cupolas of Russian churches are gilded, “So that God would notice more often.”

I could argue that it would be better to use the money spent on incense to save even one of the ten children who die of starvation somewhere in the world every minute. Others might counter that it involves so little money as to be insignificant. But the point is not in the amount of money but in the disposition of our hearts and in what our Lord would have us do. If we were as concerned about our neighbors as our Lord was (“When He saw the crowd, He had compassion on them,” as we read as a prelude to the feeding of the 5000), or as He urges us to be in the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, we might forego the incense, maybe cushions for the kneelers, maybe even flowers for the altar (if purchased from a florist) and any number of other things. “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.”

We all know what our Lord commanded us to do just before He ascended to the Father. We tend to forget that among “all the things” is also compassion. Because when He comes again to judge the nations the meaning of the Great Commission will become clearer: only His own Kingdom will contain those who “did this to the least of My bretheren.” Yes, each of us has and will be forgiven much, but God Himself will be delighted every time we show compassion to “one of these little ones.”

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Pastor Peters said...

Just a question, George. Where would it end -- the stuff we should forgo for the sake of feeding the hungry? Might we dispense with a paid clergy, church building, hymnals, catechisms, choirs, etc... I am not being sarcastic but honestly want to know where you think the line should be drawn between essential and non-essentials that could/should be done away with..

Katy said...

As an asthmatic who grew up in a woodstove-burning home, I would definitely protest incense, unless it were unperfumed. I had no problems with woodsmoke and even worked in an office with quality cigars and pipes (no problem). It's the perfume. Also, I wonder if architecture and air circulation make a difference.

For those who react to lilies, try cutting off the anthers. You won't have as much pollen (and the lilies will last longer).

Back to asthma--I read recently (not in a medical journal) that the explosion of asthma cases has corresponded to the rise in the dust mite population since 1970. Does anyone know anything about this? I'm trying to find an academic article/study.

(Sincere) good luck to all you pastors wanting to introduce incense :)

J.G.F. said...

One day I brought our (empty and unlit) thurible into the sanctuary and people began coughing....

Anonymous said...

Rev. Peters: The fact is that the Church survived its first 300 years without any of the things you list. But far be it from me to dispense with any of them, including incense.

I have two concerns: first, the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom. This does not dispense with the Old Testament, but it needs to be regarded in the light of what our Lord said about the Kingdom: Matthew 11:11. “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” This illustrates the fact that there is a vast difference between the Old Covenant, sealed with the blood of animals, and the New Covenant, sealed with the blood of God Himself. Therefore I tend to be suspicious of any appeals to Old Testament rules as imperatives for the people of the New Covenant.

Secondly, as I consider the words and life of our Lord, I am impressed with the fact that His conduct on this earth was totally selfless. None of us will ever approach this level of self-denial on this earth, but that does not mean we should not aspire to it. Instead, over the years, our people have become deluded into thinking that to maintain church buildings and to provide beautiful services is the most important obligation of Christians. (My comment of 9 Oct 10 on your posting “The curse of property” also deals with this) The need to finance these activities has obscured the fact that they are essentially self-serving, even though through them faith is created and maintained. But it is our faith. We have also developed a sense of entitlement that convinces us that all kinds of things are really necessary for the proper conduct of the work of God. We are not trained to think that maybe we could do without some things in order to help those who are starving to death. To give something up without reward and to suffer for others is contrary to human nature. But this is the essence of our Lord’s life and death. In Baptism, when the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us, we become new creatures on whose hearts the will of God is written. Therefore we can have compassion; we can act selflessly, as long as we are not taught that what is essentially selfish is really the most important work of God.

You may recall that when the Apostle Paul came to Jerusalem for the second time, his first concern was to make sure that the Gospel he proclaimed was the same as that which the other Apostles proclaimed. As he left, having gained their agreement, James, Peter, and John “asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.”

Having expressed concern for the proclamation of the Gospel, it would be inexcusable for me to assert a Law which would dispense with things that are commonly practiced in the Church (I might make an exception for praise bands and projectors, to prove my imperfection). If we remember the poor before we consider our own wishes, the Spirit of God will lead us into doing those things which please Him.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

Could it be that its association with Roman Catholocism is more of the objection than the smoke of incense?

Not only with Roman Catholicism, but also in Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism and some high-church Lutheranism.

The use of incense predates the denominational categories that came into being after the Reformation.

Anonymous said...

A few rhetorical questions. Incense covers up body odor. and in the old Testament the psalmist did use the image of prayer and incense.."Let my prayer rise before thee as incense..." To that part of the super protestant in me I ask did the OTestament folks hope that incense would cover up the smell of their sins? Does something rising from earth need to cover up the smell of my sins? Do we/I need that imagery when the death of Christ has covered the smell of our/my sins.
I used to worship Christmas midnight at a High Anglican church and loved the incense smells and bells.
So I put this way down on the list of adiaphora that can possibly help the Worshipper


Free Range Anglican said...

Hell on earth is introducing incense into a congregation that is not used to it. Having served a fledgling Anglican congregation that met in a Lutheran church, I found that there were members of the Lutheran congregation that were fascinated with out incense (how gracious of them to let us smoke the place up every Saturday night!) while there were members of our own congregation who drove us to such distraction that we considered using an empty thurible just to see if they'd still cough and carry on.

There is one thing that helps; use decent quality incense. Florals can be nauseating even if you're not allergic. And, while I like the scent, I admit that Cathedral brand Queen of Heaven makes me sneeze.

I sympathize with the folks who have real allergies... but I've often wanted to tell some of them that the afterlife (which I grant will not involve asthma) has two scents, brimstone and incense... take your pick.

Portwenn59 said...

My family attended worship at St. John Lutheran in Wheaton, Il this morning. It was the first time we'd experienced incense used in a Lutheran DS. It was absolutely beautiful and the odor wafted over us very subtly. By the time the service was over, you couldn't smell it any more. The church building is only about 12 years old so I'm assuming they have a really good ventilation system. Of course, the sanctuary was very beautiful, so our senses were overwhelmed a little.

In Christ,

jade said...

There have been a number of studies which looked at a city that imposed I recently stopped smoking

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