Monday, March 29, 2010

The Aroma of the Incarnation

I read or heard somewhere recently (don't remember where) that our sense of smell is the most nostalgic of all our senses. A smell has the special quality of taking us back in time. Smelling is also very subjective. Maybe I'm strange, but sometimes smells can be ambiguous. For instance, onions smell delicious to me when they are sautéed. But arm pits also smell like onions after sautéing from a long day's work. So...I don't know what to do with that.
But smelling is subjective for me in another way. I spend a lot of time with people from the street. Sometimes I get a whiff of someone pungent and I have to take a step back. That happened recently, and a weird thought came to mind--could I ever think of someone's funk as an actual aroma that attracts me to them in a spirit of love, rather than a stench that pushes me away? I'll admit: there are lots of times after being among people that I come home and immediately hit the shower because I don't want that smell lingering around me. And I wonder how someone like Mother Teresa could dedicate her life to such "smelly" environments? She must have developed a palette for the smells of those she touched. She must have smelled it differently than others.

So this week at church we talked about being incarnational. And if you spend time among the fringes, you will assuredly be mindful of the odors that accompany people--alcohol, smoke, marijuana, urine, body odor, sweat, bad breath, feces, vomit, mildew, etc. These odors tell a person's story--fringe stories about how they started to smell that way. However, those odors are typically quite offensive to "normal," civilized people. And how we smell others can tell just as much a story about ourselves and our attitudes, than why those people actually smell. If that makes sense?

Lupton's New Chair

Bob Lupton, founder and president of Focused Community Strategies (FCS), shares a very convicting story about this in his book Theirs is the Kingdom. It's about an elderly woman from his church named Mrs. Smith who is overweight, has tobacco stains on her lips, and has literally lost control of her bowels. She had often told him that nothing would delight her more than to come over and have Sunday dinner with his family. He loves her dearly, but he admits that it would be really tough to have her over, especially since she might make a bee-line for his new corduroy recliner. He says,

"...There is a conflict. It has to do with the values that [my wife] and I learned from childhood. We believe that good stewardship means taking care of our belongings, treating them with respect, and getting long service from them. Our boys know that they are not to track in mud on the carpet or sit on the furniture with dirty clothes. To invite Mrs. Smith into our home means we will have filth and stench soil our couch. There will be stubborn offensive odors in our living room."

He did eventually invite her over, and sure enough, she made straight for the recliner. In fact, she started coming over for weekly Bible study and even claimed the recliner has "her chair." And sure enough, he says the couch was never the same.

Jesus once said..."It is much easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." Have you ever thought of your cleanliness as a form of wealth that you withhold from the smelly and dirty? And have you ever thought that it would keep you from truly experiencing the Kingdom in its entirety? Elsewhere Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven." (Italics added) Those two sayings are about attitudes.

Does our attitude stink?

How we handle the smell of being incarnational depends on our attitude. Do we smell stench or aroma? Think about it. If our attitude stinks, then we will view the odors of the incarnation as a stench--and we will be pushed away ("be apart"). If we have an incarnational attitude, then we will view it as an aroma--and we will be attracted to the marginalized ("be among").

Philippians 2:1-11 tells us how Jesus handled it, and how we should handle it. The key line from verses 5-6 sums it up: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing..." (vv.5,6). The rest is the Gospel.

Sometimes, though, in our "American Christianity" (as Lupton calls it) we get it backwards. We grasp the privilege of Christ instead of the attitude of Christ, and we are glad that we don't stink and that we steward our wealth responsibly.

Actually...we do stink

But it helps to remember that the incarnation was for us. To our dismay Isaiah reminds us: "We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6a NLT).

So our attitude quickly gets a reality check one we take a whiff of ourselves and remember that we're all sinners, and that internally (where it really matters) we actually "stank."

The Incarnational Spin-Cycle

But thankfully, in Christ's death and resurrection, our filthy rags become clean once they are washed in the blood (laundry soap) of Jesus.

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? (2 Cor. 15:14-16 NIV)

In Christ, we become an aroma of life to those who are far from God. But it is only when we embrace incarnational living that the fringes also take on the aroma of Christ, because according to Matthew 25:31-40 Christ is actually present there. It comes full circle. And what may be pungent to us at first, is actually the sweet smell of salvation at work, like the fragrance of a cologne or perfume beckoning our embrace. So their odor should nostalgically remind us of Christ's love demonstrated for us, and it should attract us ever closer to them in that same love. Because the Gospel of Christ can't be done at a distance, but close enough that we would lean in even closer to breathe in their fragrance. Breathe it in deeply...and remember. And love.

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