Friday, September 28, 2012

Smells Like Holy Spirit

Church smells funky.  But I think it's supposed to.

I grew up heathen, which is a sect of atheism for those of you playing along at home.  I was pagan until preschool, then again when kindergarten started.  Though we weren't a church-going family, each of us kids were enrolled in Lutheran preschool on the south side of town and spent one or two summers at the same Lutheran Vacation Bible School, which in those days consisted of getting together for a little bit each day and coloring pictures of the nativity while learning the words to "Jesus Loves Me."  (This I know.  For the Bible tells me so, which is not a valid logical justification for anything.  Which is beside the point.)

What I knew about that Lutheran preschool - the church, really - and what I remember all these years later are the cockroaches, the too-holy-to-touch room called a sanctuary, and the smell.

It was funky.

Today, I might call it a mix of age and must and mold.

I'm not Lutheran any more.  (I never was.  One of my Lutheran friends, though, would probably make the joke here that, "I'm not Lutheran any more.  I repented, and God made me a Methodist."  I'm not a Methodist, either, but I do love denominational humor.)  I never really was.  Lutheran, that is.  Today, I'm in a new church that I found a little over 12 years ago when a cute young classmate dragged me there to work on school projects.

Twelve years ago, that church smelled funky.  The same mix of age and must and mold.  That same waft of lingering in my nose.

I could never figure it out.  What makes church stink?  I'd visited a few others over the years, and I'm telling you - they all smell like that.

But I've been at this one twelve years, and we have a new auditorium and foyer area that is about 12 or 13 years old, so it shouldn't smell like age, even though it did even when it was new.  Maybe because I was new.  As time went on, the smell kind of dissipated and I thought we must be getting better at air-freshening technology.  I think, though, I just got used to it.

Because you see, I got in this habit of just going to church.  Showing up.  Sitting in my purple chair.  Standing.  Singing.  Standing.  Praying.  Sitting.  Listening.  Hugging.  Leaving.  For the past several years, due to circumstances in my own life, I hadn't been doing a whole lot there but consuming.  Attending.  Putting in my time.  And not bothering to smell the rosary, as it were.  (We don't have a rosary.)  I didn't even notice when the smell went away.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to serve my church, as I'm getting back in the habit of doing as God has made me able once more in this season of my life.  I showed up early and spent four and a half hours of labor getting our building ready for National Back to Church Sunday.  (Did you participate?  I'd love to hear stories from your congregation about September 16.)  Somewhere around hour two, the place started to stink again.

It started to smell funky.

At first, I thought it must be because I was hugging a toilet with my face locked between the tank, the floor, and the wall.  But I started to think it wasn't the water; church is supposed to smell like that.

I like the idea that when we walk into our churches, that smell hits our nose.  I like that we're suddenly fully aware that where we are is somewhere other.  Because in all my years, even living on top of a musty old basement that was once flooded and molded and mildewed, I have never smelled that smell anywhere but church.  And I like that.  It's an instant, pungent reminder that this is a place to engage.

Can you not help but to engage in a place like that?  Walk into a cloud of odor, and you can't help but lift your head a little and start looking around, actively seeking the source of that smell.  For me, it's kind of like that with church.  When I smell that funky smell, I hold my head up a little higher and take notice of where I'm at and what's around me.  It went away for years when I wasn't doing anything but marking attendance; when I stepped back in to serve and started taking an active role in the community of God, there it is again.

And I'm not so sure about mold and must and mildew and age; I think maybe it's the smell of a thousand stories coming together and mixing in the air.  I think that's the way that "holy" must smell.

So I walk in every Sunday hoping to smell it.  Hoping to be so engaged in what's happening in that place, so involved, so thoroughly given over to everything that I even smell what's going on there.  It's become this whole body, five sense experience and if I don't smell it, I start to ask myself what part of me isn't in it.  What part of me isn't loving hard today.  What part of me isn't holding up a little higher and looking around.  What part of me isn't engaged. 

Because I think church is supposed to smell funky.  And if it doesn't, then I have to consider the possibility that at that given moment, I do.

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