Olfactory Theology

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Easter is feast, not fast, tide, and this is Texas, so what better than an Easter meditation on smoker and brisket. I recently blessed a big one at Holy Trinity, Bonham. Its owner Rick told me that a similar cooker, also the size of a trailer was once stolen from his backyard - if you see that outlaw cooker headed down the highway, call the diocese!

The smell of cooking meat wafted over the church grounds throughout our Palm Sunday service. It reminded me of the following verse from II Corinthians 2:15-16:

     “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to the one a fragrance from death to death, to another from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?”

All of this made me think of one of the most memorable moments in the walkabout. We were at St. James Kemp and heard about a feeding program aimed at kids in a neighborhood with lots of challenges including drugs. Men in the parish set up smokers at the margins and let the smell of meat waft over the neighborhood and kids came all weekend to eat - no more advertising or explanation necessary. (The story bespoke the creativity and winsomeness of that parish in general!)

Let’s reflect for a moment on the brisket model of evangelism. Paul tells us that the witness we offer to the love of God in Christ should waft. There is something gentle and gradual about that image, one that allows the Spirit to work as it will. I am not convincing others, though giving reasons has its place. I am letting the beauty of the news of the resurrection of Jesus go where it will in my neighborhood and to do its work. And it surely will, for humans are wired for it, in spite of our flaws, as surely as the sense of smell is wired at the deepest levels of our brains. People will make what they will of it too - Paul says the same odor connotes life for one, death for another. It is not for us to suppose we can determine which - we have to make sure the waft keeps coming. Paul finishes that passage with a statement about how insufficient we are for such great things. We cannot compel anything, nor are we to shirk anything. In the preceding verse he has said that we are the triumphal procession of those taken captive by the love of God in the crucified and risen Christ. It assumes incense along the way - it is a great liturgically - friendly image. We have no choice. We walk the path in His wake. It is a triumphal procession, whatever others make of it. And through those ancient streets there were odors of various kinds. Which odor predominates depends - but walk in public, amidst those reactions, we must.

All of this leaves us with an exhortation and a question. The first is the importance of confidence that the aroma will smell of life and draw the neighbors. The question is this: how best to allow the aroma to waft over our neighborhood, the Church being the Easter cooker.




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The man was wandering in a marsh. He ran in water up to his knees, more slowly as he tired. And the bird of prey continued to close, driving the man into the corner where there was no exit.  He had been hunted and now was caught. Suddenly the bird descended, broke the man’s neck, and as he sank into the water, in some strange way he realized that he was one with the bird, who had returned to the sky.
It is Holy Week, and I have returned from the House of the Bishops, where our church seeks to turn itself to evangelism, at whose heart is personal witness. So here I would like to offer mine.  I was 19, had left the church behind, but the confusion of college and a sense of lost direction afflicted me.  I had begun reading Christian authors, and this sense of being hunted, akin to that in the poem `The Hound of Heaven,’ grew in me.  Finally, I got to a crisis point, where running my own affairs in life became manifestly untenable. The lines that opened this blog relate a dream I had at that time. Shortly thereafter I did not so much give my life to Christ as clearly understood that he had claimed it.  I did not make everything clear at once, but it did set a direction for my life that has continued, and for which I am grateful at the deepest level.
So let me offer a commentary on my own dream.  The most important thing is that the main actor in the drama was not me. It was the bird of prey, who is Jesus Christ. In our conversions, in our lives, in our world if we could see it, He is the main actor. St. Paul says that we do so much know God as are known by Him.  He took the initiative, at a time when I was landlocked:  ‘while we were yet sinners Christ died for us…’  The key thing is not the experience, but He whom I had an experience…The word for this initiative, this having-something-done-for-us is ‘grace.’  There is no earning or qualifying for it, and realizing this takes a lifetime of overcoming our resistance.   Another way to say the same thing is that each day we recall our baptism, whose pattern the dreamed followed, the sacrament in which Christ claims us and names us because of what He had done and not what we deserve.
Secondly, this grace is not first an idea but an event, an accomplished fact.  The heart of the message of Holy Week is that Jesus on the cross is not just an example, though He is this too, but rather has taken on my burden and in dying has changed my circumstance before God, the ultimate ‘facts on the ground.’  That dying of His, first, is the shape of what the convert undergoes, as well as the shape of the Christian life that follows after, again if only we could more see it.
Third and finally, that time of my life was, in retrospect, full of relief and joy.  God wasn’t ending my life- He was performing spiritual CPR, which makes sense since He created me in the first place.  The news we hear this week is hard, especially the clear implication that we are in ourselves among the crowd, at Judas’ and Pilate’s side.  But it is in retrospect a week full of relief and joy, and a sense of that is my deepest prayer for each of you who read this column.

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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.