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There are so many things not to like about Los Angeles… the smog, the traffic, the hoards of people, the traffic, the fires and earthquakes (in fact, just this week I was jolted awake by a 4.4 at 4 a.m.), and did I mention the traffic?

On the other hand, I truly hold it a privilege to live here. I live in a part of the city where I can walk to get where I need to go most of the time. It’s also near-perfect weather for much of the year. Another reason I count it such a privilege to live here is what happens in the air this time of year in Pasadena.

Right around the middle of March, the blooming begins. Pasadena is known as the City of Roses, but there are so many other fragrant flowers and bushes everywhere you turn, filling the air with a brilliant bouquet. With eyes closed, you might imagine you’ve just set foot in the corner florist.

Walking this week, I was confronted by the fragrance of a bush that ran the entire length of the block. The scent was so strong. I literally had to take a moment to consider whether or not breathing such odorous air was good for me. Of course, I quickly realized I was being silly. Smog is one thing, Star Jasmine blooms, another.

The scent of early Spring buds has another key difference from carbon monoxide: I WANT to smell it. In fact, I find myself stopping to snort the scent-filled air as if I were a hopeless cocaine junkie. The smell is distracting. It is intoxicating. I cannot get enough.
(Just now, a waft of blossom-air just greeted my nose through the window next to the table where I’m sitting. I think I’m high now.)

But why am I so urgently drawn to such a simple thing as the smell of a flower? Part of the reason may be that I associate this wonderful smell with an important time in my life twelve years ago, a time that was both difficult and full of beautiful life-changing experiences. The amazing reality is, the Spring blossoms in Pasadena enkindle my emotions and transport me back to an earlier period. And, they seem to do so more effectively than seeing, hearing, or touching anything associated with that time in my life.

These olfactory experiences are powerful, but they are at the same time elusive. I recall numerous past encounters with specific scents and knowing without doubt that they are connected to particular past experiences. Yet, in those moments I also recall struggling to pinpoint exactly who or what the person or place is that my mind is associating with that particular smell. Without fail, before I figure it out, the sensation is gone.

Why are these scent-sory moments so powerfully redolent and so mysteriously elusive at the same time? The scientific explanation for redolence is that unlike our senses of sight, touch, or hearing, the senses of smell (and taste) are directly connected to our brain’s hippocampus – the center of the brain’s long-term memory. Our other three senses are filtered through the thalamus – the part of the brain associated primarily with language and consciousness.

For the mysterious elusiveness, we must look beyond the the olfactory gland. A second – some say “vestigial” – organ has been located in most humans. It is called Jacobsen’s Organ and resides just inside the human nostrils. It was discovered as recently as two centuries ago (by Jacobsen, who else!) because it consists only of two very tiny pits, one on each side of the septum. Some believe that this organ feeds a primal part of our brains, enabling the capacity to monitor minute physiological changes in those around us. Perhaps Jacobsen’s Organ provides physical evidence for that “sixth sense,” which makes some of us so sensitive to the “invisible”. I smell dead people.

All of this scientific insight causes me to wonder why we typically use so little smell (and taste) in our gatherings relative to sound, sight, and touch. Think about it. What is primary in your gathering? Chances are you think first of sound. The music. The preacher. The verbal responses. Even video. Of course, video is also visual. There are powerpoint/keynote/media shout/pro-presenter presentations. Images and words are projected. There are seasonal decorations and colors. There is the furniture and architecture. And, somewhere in-between the sights and sounds we locate touch. Hands are shaken. Hugs are given. (We mostly only joke about sharing ‘holy kisses’). In some communities hands are laid in prayer. Baskets are passed hand to hand, and often so are the bread and wine. Which brings us to taste.

However, once we get to taste (and her partner, smell) it becomes more difficult to make a meaningful list of sensory examples. Sure, we taste the bread and wine. But, the tasting experience really rises or falls on one’s church heritage. Fresh hot loaves, baked on-site with sweet wine that has been allowed to breathe – a fine tasting experience. Stale bits of cracker with Welch’s – not so much.

Some communities like the one I’ve been attending, have a hot meal every time they gather. Hospitable aromas fill the warehouse as those who’ve agreed to cook enter with their Corningware and crock-pots. Together, we share the taste of hot food that is always creative and always an excellent prelude to further worshipful acts.

Short of community meals and communion, how else is the Church of the twenty-first century going to engage noses to the glory of the One who knows us? (Sorry, it had to be done).

Maybe through a call for more “culinary artists” in worship. (I like the term “worship chef”). There is already classic food symbolism found in the Passover Seder and the Eucharist. But, with all the thousands of tastes and smells available to us, why stop with bitter herbs, wine, and bread?

How about “worship florists” who work for more than funerals and weddings. Let’s save on the extra boxes of donuts some Sunday morning and spring for some fresh flowers once in a while, the fragrant kind, and something other than Easter Lilies and Christmas Poinsettias.

Perhaps it’s time to bring back censers (stationary vessels for burning incense) or thuribles (censers swung on a chain for spreading incense) to stimulate the old, olfactory. (You’ve GOT to see this). Incense brings the added visual beauty of rising smoke, representing the prayers of the people.

Or, MAYBE, it’s time for some young, whipper-snapper-worship-leaders to come up with fresh ways to engage our sense of smell in gathered settings to the glory of God.

The English word “redolent” is a curious word. It is an adjective that means ‘strongly reminiscent of something’. It derives from the Latin “redolent” meaning, “giving out a strong smell”. Somewhere along the line, translators made the connection between smell and memory.

If worship is largely “remembering” (who God is, what he has done, what he has promised to do) and then responding, we would all do well to innovate more “strong smelling” worship forms that are redolent of the Trinity.




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