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Incense

Saturday, April 23, 2016



Every morning around 7 am, a young woman across the street comes outside and places a small pot in front of her house. She lights a few sticks of incense, holds them in front of her face with her eyes closed, and stands there for several seconds in silence as she offers them to our neighborhood spirits. Then she places the sticks of incense in the pot and heads back inside.

The first few times I saw this, I was struck (and still am) by the beauty of it: the smell of the incense, the sight of smoke gently rising into the calm morning, the stillness of the woman's prayer as she begins a new day. It has inspired me to think about how I might incorporate more elements of sight, smell, and touch into how I worship God. (I come from a tradition where church services and "quiet times" center on the spoken/written word and some music, but using elements like incense and artistic artifacts is biblical as well.)

But as I felt inspired, I also felt a little lame. After all, there I was on my porch starting my day by praying to the true God, yet I had no pretty pots or fragrant smells to show for it – just me sitting at a table talking to God and reading His Word. In time, however, God used the sight of this daily incense to deepen my appreciation for two beautiful things.

Firstly, since God is the creator of all beauty, we are free to bring along whatever we want to help us connect to Him; we can listen to music, we can light incense, we can make art. But we don't need any of these things to come before God. Because of what Christ has done, we can come before Almighty God with nothing in hand, anytime, anywhere, in any condition, and He will receive us! Even when our lives are a complete mess, we can "approach God's throne of grace with confidence" (Hebrews 4:16). That is beautiful.

Secondly, God reminded me of the stunning image found in Revelation 8:3-4: "Another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel."

While the incense burning across the street is aesthetically beautiful, the deeper beauty is found in simple, unadorned prayers in Jesus' name. Our prayers are the true and lasting incense. Humans can make incense that rises into the air, but only Jesus grants us to make incense that can rise before the throne of God. Though it sometimes feels like our prayers just rise into the air and vanish like the smoke of burning incense, the breathtaking truth is that He hears all of our prayers – every single one. That is beautiful.

(If you have a moment, please take a moment to pray with me for the young woman and her mother who live across the street from us. I don't even know their names yet, but I pray that God, in His grace, will someday lead them to trade in their "merit-making" incense ritual for the joy and intimacy of the true incense – talking with their heavenly Father.)

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