It’s a Thursday morning in the San Bernardino mountains of California. After a time of meditation, I go outside to sit and write a bit before a day filled with people, meetings, emails, and study to complete a study I’ll be leading this Sunday.
After quieting my mind and being reminded of the presence of Christ, above, beneath, around, and within me, my move outdoors hits me like a ton of bricks. Maybe it was the breathing and calming effects of meditation on the presence of Christ. Maybe it was the fact that the air was cooler this morning than previous mornings here. Whatever the cause, the scent of the air, a blend of Manzanita and Pine, hits me fully, catching my be surprise, and I’m instantly transported back to my childhood:
I’m 12, heading to camp for the first time, not as a camper but as a companion to my dad, who’s providing transport to my sister. She’s 16 and it’s 1968, so her guitar goes with her, along with Peter, Paul, Mary, Janis Joplin, and the whole clan of social protest songs. She plays her guitar in the backseat, and I’m the rhythm section, striking my thighs like they’re bongos.
We get out of the car and… that scent! It hits me for the first time ever, along with the visuals of the high Sierra, the trees, mountains, water, and deep blue sky. And speaking of the water, the first thing dad does when he gets out of the car is make his way to the water fountain, built of stone with a simple pipe sticking up out of the middle, more like a spring than anything I’ve seen back in the valley. He gulps vast amounts, stopping once to breathe, and a second time to say “best water anywhere” before continuing to drink more. He’s alive, rested, happy – a contrast to the often stressful world he inhabits as the superintendent of a small rural school district on the outskirts of Fresno, California. I’m watching, and the whole while the scent of these mountains in being imprinted deep in my soul. It was, I believe, my first whiff of shalom.
A few years later I’ll come back here. By the time it’s my turn for camp, my dad will have grown ill, unable to handle the thinner air of the mountains. I’m entering 10th grade, with a crush on Linda, a plying of my basketball skills to woo her, and utter intimidation as she executes perfect dives, all week, into the pond. She’ll go on to be on my high school’s diving team, a few levels above me in the social cast system that is high school. But my soul will awaken to God’s wooing that same week, and that wooing will become the piece of a larger mosaic of God’s activity in those mountains, always with that same scent as the backdrop.
I’ll go back two years out of high school, to that same camp. I’m not in a good space as I drive up the mountain in my Ford Mustang. I’m there because a blonde invited me, not because I’m seeking God. But God is seeking me, and the encounter with the divine that happens that brief weekend in February will eventuate in my changing majors, schools, and states – moves that will determine the course of my life. I prayed there, that weekend, and made knowing God a goal, and even more than a goal – declared that I wanted it to be the main thing, the north start to which I’d return over and over again when life becomes too much, as it often did, and does.
Later, married without children, my wife and I will take a youth group I’m leading back to that same camp, and I’ll inhale that same scent, which has now come to represent so much that is holy to me. That youth group experience will seal my call to ministry, and I’ll stay in touch with some of those students to this very day, our hearts knit together in ways I didn’t know could happen.
After that camp experience as a youth pastor, I won’t return to that particular plot of the Sierras until the day of my mom’s funeral a few years ago. But on that day, I drive up and stand in the very spot where I declared a desire to know God 39 years earlier, and I’ll marvel at God’s relentless pursuit of me, God’s abundance poured out, and I’ll offer tears of gratitude. “Look what God has done” I’ll say, as once again, the scent of hope fills me.
Maybe this back story will help you understand why II Corinthians 2:14,15 is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. This is where Paul sees both his identity and calling as being “the aroma of Christ”. Truth be told, there are, for all of us, some scents that evoke hope, joy, rightness, beauty. The scent of the Sierras awakens something in me, something good. Jesus’ desire is that tho who follow him and claim to know him would also awaken something in others. That Jesus scent is powerful when Mother Teresa was loving the untouchables in India, or when MLK was renouncing violence while at the same time working for justice. But make no mistake, the most important scents aren’t discovered in biographies and history, any more than you can smell the blood and gun powder of WWII by reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
Scent requires, not reading, not preaching, not winning theological debates, but embodiment, actually displaying in our lives the character of Jesus. The good news is that our small acts of embodiment are like aromatherapy for the spirit. Faithful parenting, faithful love of a spouse through illness, serving in ways the bless those living on the margins, crossing social divides, creating beauty (whether in a meal, a table, a painting, a song, or even a conversation), loving one’s neighbors in tangible ways, these are the scent of hope.
It’s no good proving the age of earth (young or old), or the politics of Jesus (ostensibly left, or right – though in reality he was neither), or the meaning of communion or inerrancy or atonement theory, when the real need in our world is to smell the scent of hope, mercy, joy, hospitality, peace, and so much more, pouring out of us. Being religious while emitting the stench of arrogance, pride, and judgement rather than omitting the scent of Christ is a lot like wearing a shirt that advertises some certain soap, while you haven’t showered for five days: bad advertising! Something tells me that our culture’s perception of Christianity these days is that it stinks. Pedophilia. Financial corruption. Sexual abuse scandals among Evangelical leaders of power, and much much more. The world has inhaled and is largely saying, “no thank you” as they continue searching.
It’s sad because our culture is rootless, aimless, addicted, lonely, and afraid. In other words, we’re living in a dumpster. Say we must ask ourselves: Where is the scent of Christ? The answer belongs to each of us, and our faith communities. There’s no need shooting others, when I have plenty to work on myself in order to let the pure beauty of Christ’s scent be revealed through me. I pray the same for you!