Beautiful, Perpetual Incense

By Karla Hein

Recently, I was surprised by the story of Cornelius in Acts 10. The angel appeared to him in a vision and said, “Your prayers and charitable gifts have ascended as a memorial offering before God” (Acts 10:4 NASB).

The imagery reminded me of when God gave instructions about the tabernacle to the Israelites in the wilderness. “And when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense. There shall be perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations” (Exodus 30:8 NASB). Then, in Revelation, “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people” (5:8; also see 8:3–4).

Prayers have always felt more earthly to me. Instead of my requests ascending to God’s throne, I imagine them bouncing off the ceiling as my mind wanders. I’ve viewed prayer like a time-delayed investment deposited in a vault for God’s rainy-day perusal.

“May my prayer be set before you as incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2). Suddenly, I realize prayer is a holier experience than what I’ve contrived while hurrying through a mealtime blessing. I have created a routine that lacks reverent awareness. God instructed Moses to “take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

This is how I’ve been feeling lately about the privilege of prayer. My prayers rising directly from my heart to God’s presence is an astonishing thought! A beautiful gift I offer to the One who is all-knowing and all-sufficient. My prayers as a sweet-smelling incense. How very real and personal. How very holy. “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth, so let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2).

I am also discovering prayer is an act of defiance. Defiance against my doubt in God’s sovereignty. Defiance against pride that tries to control and to solve on my own strength. Peter describes a process of humbling ourselves and casting our concerns before a caring and mighty God (1 Peter 5:6–7). Prayer then becomes a declaration of my faith in the working of God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

God grants us a glimpse into heavenly realities when we are told in Revelation that the four living creatures “day and night they never stop saying, “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come” (4:8). Surely, I am missing out on some reverence if I can only focus for a sentence or two on worship, a mumbled thanks before a busy day.

Karla Hein

“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Colossians 4:2). I watch life move onward in a fragile, constant beat, and I wonder: when one prays “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17 NASB), does death feel more like an inhale? A breath before the next word spoken between two dear friends? One day, I hope to find out.

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