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I can smell the Incense, I hear the low and slow creak of the pews. Early morning light streams through the windows, colored light, making pictures on the well-traveled floor; the soaring ceilings, reaching for the divine, but most of all I smell the incense.
Recently, I had the opportunity for a private tour of First Lutheran Church in Downtown Cincinnati. If you haven’t experienced this worship space, you must. For over 175 years this place of worship has stood proudly on Vine Street. The neighborhood swirling and changing around it. First, German immigrants who wanted a place for English speakers to worship. Then Appalachian transplants with their Irish roots and new hymns looking for work in the factories of Queensgate. Followed by poor black families, escaping the Jim Crow of the south, and looking for a better life. And now the young professionals and young families. You can call them hipsters, if you must, with their plaid clothes, beards and craft beer. This church has always been at a crossroads. Always struggling with a new identity as the faithful work to minister to those that God lays across their doorstep. But one thing remains the same – Incense. It strikes you when you walk into their worship space. God is here.
I think about the first time I remember smelling incense. St. Raphael’s Church in Springfield, Ohio. My Great Grandmother walking proudly to her pew on Sunday morning. Pinching my elbow with her arthritic fingers during the Lord’s Prayer so I wouldn’t keep saying the words at the end when all the good Catholics fell silent (I wouldn’t want to embarrass her in front of the priest).
The smell was interesting to me. I was also interested in the pageantry of it. Watching the tall, stark, white haired priest walk down the aisle. Swinging the censer widely back and forth as he processed down the aisle with the large cross and the Bible in tow. How he walked circles around the altar swinging it with the practiced skill of a man; who I thought must come in and rehearse this when no one was looking. The prayers of the faithful being carried to the Creator on wisps of air. It all seemed so righteous, so holy.
For a kid that had spent his life the son of a Presbyterian and Baptist, who started out life as a Methodist, then a Baptist and for one, very brief, single Sunday, a confused visitor at a Pentecostal Church, this space was different to me. Sure, at seven, the biggest thing that stuck with me was all the kneeling and standing, followed by some kneeling, then sitting, and then some more kneeling. Why was God so interested in the position we were in when we said certain things? But what has always stuck with me was the smell. The incense.
It brings me closer to God. Not in the in the head knowledge kind of way, but in the way that invades your heart. It’s the scent of something ancient that creates a thin space for me. A space where I am steps closer to the divine. I involuntarily close my eyes, and, for a moment, I feel like I can almost see God.
As I stand in First Lutheran and listen to Pastor Ferguson share about the people they serve and the ministry that is growing. I can hear the hammers of the workers outside, who are carefully restoring the façade of this historic place, I am overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit. I can almost hear the faintest sound of music. I hear the voices of the German immigrants, those from the Appalachian Mountains, and the black family beginning a new life with renewed hope, joined now by those young millennial families as they all sing “It is Well”.
This is Christ’s Church. We are Christ’s Church. A place of ever constant change. A thin space where God and His Holy Spirit are waiting. A place of the faithful where communities are built and strengthened and sent out into the world to strengthen others. Boy, I can smell the incense.
About the Author: Ben Morris is a member of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he serves as chairperson of the Inviting & Welcoming Committee. He lives in Erlanger, Kentucky with his wife, Amy and their dog, Loki. They are expecting their first child in March.
About LCR: Lutheran Church of the Resurrection is a vibrant and welcoming community of faith and a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.