Tag Archives: Senses

I Smell.

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“You shall make an altar on which to offer incense…”
Exodus 30:1 (NRSVCE)

I typically keep a fragrant candle on the desk in my office. I like scents of vanilla the best. Right now I’ve been trying out a candle labeled as “tobacco and vanilla.” I thought it might remind me of the smell of my grandfather’s pipe. Not so much. I do, however, like the scent.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed that smell is the physical sense to which we give the least attention. Sight, hearing, taste, and touch get the most of our attention. Our olfactory senses aren’t as necessary for human survival as they once were. Nevertheless, a scent can create a powerful response with me. Some experts say that smells plays more of a role in attracting a mate than we even realize. More consciously, it can bring back a memory like the smell of a rose reminding me of my Grandma Vander Well’s perfume. It can create a sense of peace and security like the smell of freshly baked bread wafting up from the kitchen. It also works in negative terms. Some smells give me a headache or can make me feel physically ill.

Incense played a large part in ancient religious ceremonies. In today’s chapter, God continues to prescribe to Moses how the Hebrew tribes will worship. The chapter begins with designs for an altar on which incense is to be perpetually burned and it ends with a unique recipe for the fragrant ingredients a perfumer is to blend the incense. Because the fragrant oil used to anoint Aaron and the priests, and the incense burned in the traveling temple was unique, the smell would become associated in the hearts and minds of the Hebrews with being present at God’s place and giving their sacrifices and offerings. The smoke of the burning incense also became a metaphor for the prayers of God’s people wafting up to heaven.

Incense once again became part of worship in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions in Christianity, though I have head it argued that it was primarily a practical way for the priest to overcome the powerful pungency of body odor emanating from the poor, unbathed masses packing into the church on Sunday. It was never a formally prescribed practice of the early followers of Jesus. In the New Testament, the only references to incense point to either the practice in the Hebrew ritual or else to John’s visions of heaven in Revelation.

The use of incense in Hebrew worship was, however, linked to an important metaphor understood by early believers. In his second letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul writes:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.
2 Cor 2:14-16 (NIV)

Once again, I find that the physical bricks-and-mortar (or in this case oil-and-incense) of the Hebrew system matures through Jesus and shifts into a flesh-and-blood understanding of what God is doing. In the former, people came to a central location where the fragrance of the priests and the burning incense reminded them of God’s presence. In the latter, every follower of Jesus becomes part of a “royal priesthood” taking the fragrance of Jesus with us wherever we go and among any and all people with whom we interact in our circles of relationship and community.

I have spent twenty-five years in a career in which I travel and regularly visit our clients in their places of business around the country. I am always praying that I will be the fragrance of Christ while I am there conducting training sessions, making executive presentations, and coaching or mentoring individuals.. What’s fascinating to me is that I have on several occasions had someone literally ask me if I’m a Christian. When I confess that I am, the response is typically, “I knew it. I could just tell.” Equally fascinating to me is that in almost every long-term engagement with a client there is an individual or two who react to my presence with intense animosity. In those instances, I get to practice returning curses with blessings and showing (often unreciprocated) kindness.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think of the message I gave yesterday among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. Today’s chapter so beautifully illustrates a point I was making. I observe that many are stuck in the old paradigm of a religious institution founded on the notion of bringing God’s Kingdom to earth. People gather to do the regularly scheduled religious bit, then forget about it until my next scheduled appearance on Sunday, or Christmas, or Easter.

Jesus changed all that in practice. He started with getting the Kingdom of God into the individual, transforming the human being into the Temple in whom God’s Spirit dwells. It is the individual who takes God’s Kingdom wherever they go and impacts people in every relationship and circles of influence. I don’t burn incense at the temple, I am the temple from which God’s fragrance seeps out in my love, kindness, gentleness, patience, faithfulness and self-control. Some are attracted. Some are repelled. That’s something I don’t control, though how I respond to it is.

Monday. Another week. Holiday coming up. I have appointments, a little travel, and a weekend full of friends. Hope I’m fragrant in all the good ways.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Matters of Heart

He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, yet not with a true heart.
2 Chronicles 25:2 (NRSVCE)

In all my years as a follower of Jesus, I’ve observed that we as humans are far more comfortable with flesh than with Spirit. From our earliest years we’re taught to trust what our senses are telling us:

The stove coil is red and it’s radiating heat. Don’t touch it.

The meat smells funny. Don’t eat it.

Something in my knee just popped. Stop running.

I’m feeling light headed and nauseous. Better lie down.

Following Jesus, however, is a faith journey. God’s Message says that faith is “the assurance of what we hope for, evidence of that which we cannot see.” There’s no sight, smell, touch, taste, or hearing involved. Quite the opposite. Faith is beyond our physical senses. God continues to say over and over and over again that He judges not on what can be seen, but what is unseen; God looks at the heart.

When God was directing Samuel who he should anoint as king, He told the prophet: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Yet I’ve observed continually that most followers of Jesus, and the institutions we create to organize ourselves, repeatedly revert back to our inherent human instinct to trust our base physical senses. We judge others on what we see in their appearance, what we observe in their behaviors, or we we hear about them from others. Our institutions create rules, both written and unwritten, about a person’s worth and standing before God based on how they look and/or behave. I’ve come to believe that we do this because it comes naturally, it is easy, and it gives us (both individually and as a group) comfort when others conform to the social, religious, and behavioral standards we stipulate and expect.

But that’s not how God operates. He says it quite plainly. “My thoughts are not your thoughts. Neither are your ways my ways.” (Isaiah 55:8) And, as the Bard so beautifully put it: “There’s the rub.”

Dealing with the unseen motives and intents of the heart, as God does, is messy. It requires discernment, wisdom, grace, and risk.

In today’s chapter, the Chronicler describes Judah’s King Amaziah as a person who did the right things, but not from a true heart. His actions were admirable, his behavior conformed to expectation, but his motivations were all in the wrong place. It brings to mind the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, of whom Jesus said:

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

“Snakes! Reptilian sneaks! Do you think you can worm your way out of this? Never have to pay the piper? It’s on account of people like you that I send prophets and wise guides and scholars generation after generation—and generation after generation you treat them like dirt, greeting them with lynch mobs, hounding them with abuse.”

The religious people of Jesus day were doing the same things I have observed in religious people of my day. Posturing, appearance, and propriety intended to prove righteousness from what can be physically seen and and audibly heard.

Jesus took a different approach. He gathered a motley crew of followers that included rough, uneducated fishermen, a pair of brothers with anger management issues, a sleazy tax collector, a thief, and a right wing terrorist. He taught them about faith. He exemplified the love he expected of them. He instilled in them compassion. They didn’t come close to measuring up to any kind of acceptable religious standard of their day. But that didn’t matter to God. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 

God’s standard is as simple as a Broadway tune: “You gotta have heart!”

This morning I find myself wanting desperately not to be an Amaziah or a Pharisee. Screw religious trappings and the litmus tests of the institutional church.

I want more heart. And I want to find the heart of others, not their conformity to the standards with which I’m personally comfortable.

“‘I See,’ said the Blind Man”

“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced,and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.”
Zechariah 12:10 (NIV)

Ever notice that people have favorite sayings? My Grandma Vander Well, when struck by a realization, would always say, “‘I see,’ said the blind man when he picked up his hammer and saw.” Wendy’s Grandfather used the same phrase though he had a different twist: “‘I see,’ said the blind man to the deaf dog when he picked up his hammer and saw.” We have a friendly, ongoing feud about which one is “right.”

If you regularly asked my dad how he is you’re likely to hear that he is “busier than a cranberry merchant” a phrase that originally was a variation of “busier than a cranberry merchant in autumn” (when cranberries are harvested). He also might say he is, “slower than molasses in January.

If you read the Jesus stories by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John you’ll find that Jesus also had a favorite phrase: “He who has ears, let him hear” which also occasionally included a variant of “Let he who has eyes see.”

Jesus explained to his followers on different occasions that truths He spoke of God’s kingdom were things that many (especially the most institutionally religious people, interestingly enough) didn’t understand. Though they had ears they didn’t hear it. Though they had eyes they didn’t see it. They heard the words and saw Jesus’ miracles but they were deaf and blind to what He was really saying and doing. Jesus invited all those who listened to his stories and watched what He was doing to open the eyes and ears of their spirit to see what He was really up to.

In our journey through the prophetic writings of Zechariah I’ve been noticing a pattern. There’s a theme that’s been coming across in the past few chapters. On the surface meaning of Zac’s prophecies he is addressing his people, at his time of history, in the circumstance he and they were experiencing. Buried in the words, however, there are little nuggets that don’t seem to fit neatly in Zac’s current circumstances but eerily preview key moments in Jesus’ story, a story that would take place 500 years in the future:

  • In chapter 9 Zechariah presents the King of the Jews “gentle, riding on a donkey” which aptly describes Jesus’ “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem the week before His death when the crowds shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
  • In chapter 11 Zechariah prescribes the “thirty pieces of silver” given to Judas to betray Jesus, blood money Judas threw back to the Chief priests and was used to buy a “potter’s field.”
  • In today’s chapter it happens again (see the verses pasted at the top of this post) as Zac clearly describes the crucifixion scene of Jesus (who claimed Himself to be “God’s one and only Son”) pierced by the Roman soldiers’ spear and mourned by His followers.

Interesting pattern, isn’t it? Just as God in creation buries fractal patterns in the seemingly random nature scenes we see around us all day long, so He buries patterns in the prophets poetry and the  patriarch’s stories that point to the design of a much larger story that He is telling across time. The patterns don’t appear on a cursory reading of the text any more than a cursory view of Jackson Pollack’s drip painting reveal the eerily exact fractal patterns of nature that he somehow was able to achieve in his seemingly chaotic and messy painting, yet “he who has eyes to see…”

This morning I’m thinking about layers. Layers of meaning prophecy. Layers of meaning in Jesus’ words and actions. Layers of meaning and design that have been buried in creation that eventually reveal themselves through the perceptive eyes, ears, words, and work of artists, physicists, writers, and philosophers.

I don’t want to go through this earthly  journey deaf and blind to the incredible things that God is doing all around me. I want the eyes and ears of my spirit wide open, perceptive, receptive so I can understand and experience more and more of what God is doing in this divine dance we call life. Then I can repeatedly honor Grandma Vander Well in my repeated realizations as I mutter: “I see said the blind man when he picked up his hammer and saw.

But for right now I have to finish this post and get ready for my day. Because, you know, “I’m busier than a cranberry merchant in autumn.”

Eyes Open and Aware

And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lordopened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
2 Kings 6:17 (NIV)

There was one summer back in my later high school days when I happened to pal around with a couple of guys who were in their early twenties. It just so happened that every time the three of us got together we found ourselves in circumstances in which we had opportunity to  help others. One afternoon we happened upon a boy who had just been struck on his bicycle by a truck. We sprung into action to try and help both the situation and the boy’s family as best we could. Another time we happened to show up at a nearby lake just as a child fell out of the boat near shore and we were able to dive in and help the boy to shore. Upon hearing of our string of adventures, the mother of one of my friends jokingly referred to our threesome as  “Angels Unaware.”

Throughout God’s message there is reference made to a spiritual dimension that exists all around us. We are, for the most part, completely unaware. There are multiple instances across the Great Story of people being visited by the divine, or by those from the spiritual realm. From the early chapters of Genesis in which Abraham receives three mysterious visitors to the visions of Revelation which, John chronicles, were revealed to him while he was “in the Spirit.” Paul speaks of being caught up to heaven “in the Spirit.” The author of Hebrews tells followers of Jesus to be hospitable to strangers because you never know when you might entertain “angels unaware.” Thus the moniker given to my trio of friends back in the day.

Here in the west our culture is one of science and reason. We tend to believe only what can be quantified by our physical senses and proven by science. I find it fascinating that science is now pushing into places that a generation ago would have seemed the make-believe world of science fiction. Physicists tell us that there are 10-11 facets, or dimensions, to what we perceive to be reality. In other words, there’s a whole lot more going on than that which our physical senses perceive. Fascinating. I find that not unlike what Elisha’s servant experienced in today’s chapter. There was a reality that existed in the spiritual dimension that he couldn’t see until his spiritual eyes were opened. The further I get in my journey the more I have come to believe that the lines between science and spirit is not as distinct or defined as many scientists and/or theologians would have us believe.

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Ephesus, Paul wrote, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened….” I think that’s what happened to Elisha’s servant. I think that’s what happened to Jesus companions on the road to Emmaus. There are physical eyes that see things in the physical realm, and there are spiritual eyes that perceive things in the spiritual realm.

This morning I’m thinking about the spiritual realm and the eyes of my heart. I hope that as my physical sight continues to diminish that my spiritual sight becomes more acute. I pray that the eyes of my heart will be enlightened in unimagined ways that I may see things clearly that I once may have never perceived. Until then, I hope that my physical eyes will be more attuned to identify daily opportunities to be someone else’s “angel unaware.”

Spiritually Acute

I answered the songwriters call to pray for the peace of Jerusalem at the Western wall.
I answered the songwriters call to pray for the peace of Jerusalem at the Western wall.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
    “May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
    and security within your citadels.”
Psalm 122:6-7 (NIV)

The further I progress in this life journey the more I am aware of spiritual conflict that constantly boils below the surface of our physical reality. Jerusalem is a spiritual epicenter. The lyrics of the ancient songwriter of today’s chapter were prescient as they plead for the hearer to pray for peace in the city. As I walked the compacted streets of the old city some 25 centuries later, I could feel the spiritual tension that still exists there.

“I don’t like Jerusalem,” my guide from Nazareth said one day as we stood waiting for a friend in our party.

“Really?” I asked with curiosity. For not liking the city, he obviously spent a lot of time there.

“It is a spiritually dark place,” he responded quietly.

Even Jesus lamented it: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

This morning I am thinking about spiritual realities, largely invisible to physical senses, which nonetheless exist and frame our lives. I find it fascinating that the older I get I feel my physical senses waning (“I’m sorry. I didn’t catch that. What did you say?”), but I find my spiritual senses growing more acute.

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Sensually Good

wendy vander wells chocolate truffle cheesecakeSolomon:
You are my private garden, my treasure, my bride,
    a secluded spring, a hidden fountain.

Young Woman:
Awake, north wind!

    Rise up, south wind!
Blow on my garden
    and spread its fragrance all around.
Come into your garden, my love;
    taste its finest fruits.
Song of Solomon 4:12, 16 (NLT)

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a true “foodie.” When I was a kid I drove my folks crazy with my narrow list of acceptable foods. My preferred menu was grilled cheese sandwiches, blueberry pop-tarts, eggo waffles, and Lucky Charms (are you noticing a sugary breakfast theme?) and pretty much nothing else. As I’ve gotten older my palate has expanded, but my preferred menu is still pretty narrowly defined in comparison to most people.

At the same time, I love food and have come to appreciate a good meal (not to be confused with a big meal) as one of life’s true pleasures. As an adult, I’ve also come to realize the sensuality of food and drink. I’ve learned that certain foods stimulate more than just my taste buds. I’ve realized that food and drink in certain combinations have a stronger affect than when they are consumed my themselves. I’ve even come to realize that certain foods create emotional and physical responses within me. Confession: I have found Wendy’s cheesecake to be, for me, such a sensual experience that at times it feels simply erotic.

How interesting to find in the lyrics of Solomon’s song these erotic references to gardens, fruits, food and the imagery of taste. There is a connection between our God given senses. God created our bodies to sense and experience a wide range of feelings and emotions and He called it “good.” To be sure, any sensual appetite can be taken to excess in all sorts of unhealthy ways, but the sensual experience is not in itself wrong of sinful. In fact, sensual experiences are natural, healthy and spiritually good when experienced in the proper context. How sad that the institutional church has, through the years, gotten so confused about this truth. In an effort to stamp out the excess of our sensual appetites the church often tries to deny, outlaw, and shame the senses themselves. I find this reactionary legalistic excess to simply be a mirror image of the excess indulgence they attempt to thwart. In reality, both extremes are equally sinful.

Jesus said he came to give us abundant life. This includes a healthy appreciation for the breadth of senses God gave us to properly experience the full range of creation in its sensual glory.

Making a Memory

Here I Go Again (EP)
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I went past the field of a sluggard,
    past the vineyard of someone who has no sense;
thorns had come up everywhere,
    the ground was covered with weeds,
    and the stone wall was in ruins.
I applied my heart to what I observed
    and learned a lesson from what I saw:
A little sleep, a little slumber,
    a little folding of the hands to rest—
and poverty will come on you like a thief
    and scarcity like an armed man.
Proverbs 24:30-34 (NIV)

I’m amazed at how our minds and memories work. If I’m listening to the radio and hear the Hollies‘  Long, Cool Woman in a Black Dress I am suddenly transported to Camp Idlewood, Rainy Lake, Minnesota where my family vacationed the first two weeks of August every year. I’m in Cabin #3 with my sister along with our friends Matt, Piper John, and Mark. The song is playing from an 8-track tape. Mark is being a clown and making everyone laugh as we try to sing the lead singer’s “Whoo!” at the right place in the instrumental bridge. It’s raining outside. I can picture it like it’s happening right now.

You find yourself in a funk and don’t know why. Then you remember something sad and depressing that long ago happened at this same time of the year. Your conscious mind had forgotten but your senses remember.

When I read the verses above I was suddenly talking to my friend Spike. It was the year between my freshman and sophomore year in college. Spike and I hung out a lot that summer, and one day he talked about these verses which he’d recently read. They made an impression on him and he quoted the last part of it from memory. That, in turn, made an impression on me. Thirty years later I read the verses and think of Spike. I think of the example of hard work he’s been to me in his academic pursuits and his successful career as a university professor.

We are making memories for ourselves, but more importantly for others. They can be positive memories or negative ones. The memories we create for others can be either healing or destructive. We choose through our thoughts, words, actions and relationships. How cool to imagine that someone might read a verse from God’s message and have a fond memory of me. Those are the kinds of memorable impressions I want to make for others.

Today, I want to live in such a way that it will be a pleasant memory for myself and others.

 

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