Prayers Like Incense

In our house there is a bottle of hand lotion that sits just outside of the half bathroom attached to the master bedroom. Sometimes when the weather is particularly cold my hands get chapped, so I will use this lotion. Usually I use it before going to bed, but sometimes will use it at other times, as well. A couple of weeks ago I put some on just before heading to the office. I think it may have registered in passing that it was a new bottle, but I paid no attention to it. I honestly could not tell you what kind of lotion had been there before; I never really paid any attention to the kind. So I rubbed the lotion in and went off to work. Not too long thereafter I was sitting at my desk working on something and one of my hands was up around my face. I may have been adjusting my glasses, I don’t know, but suddenly and instantaneously my mind jumped to being at the beach.

Now, thinking about the beach during a South Dakota winter is not a bad idea, actually, but (1) the winter has been quite mild, and (2) the beach had not crossed my mind at all before that moment in recent memory. So what happened? Well, it turns out that that new bottle of lotion outside my bathroom has SPF 15 sunblock in it. Quite helpful, I suppose, for those whose hands have a tendency to get sunburned! But the fragrance of sun block reminded me immediately of the beach. Why? Because for my entire life I have vacationed with my family on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and before heading from the hotel room or the beach house across the sand to the ocean we would put on sun block. So years of having the fragrance of sunblock so closely associated with the sun, sand and waves has built that memory groove into my mind. The concept is the same as Pavlov’s dog salivating upon hearing the bell after the food had followed the bell for so long. Odds are pretty good that the smell of sun block will cause me to think about the beach for the rest of my life.

The sense of smell is incredibly powerful, isn’t it? I imagine we can all think of favorite smells…smells that are likely associated with a place or a food that we particularly enjoy. We can probably all name some very unpleasant smells, too. And the same smell can create a different reaction among different people, some positive, some negative (or even revolting).

The Old Testament refers often to the use of incense in the worship of the Lord. There was a place in the temple for incense to be burned, and the there are several accounts where there were serious consequences for the improper burning of incense. There is also a psalm of David, though, in which David prays to the Lord, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you.” David was pleading with God to hear his prayer but also expressing his desire that his prayers would be like a pleasing aroma to God.

My encounter with the sun block-infused hand lotion got me to wondering. I wonder, to continue David’s analogy, if each person’s prayers have a unique aroma before the Lord? And if so, I wonder if my prayers are like incense…like a pleasing aroma that causes the Lord to think fondly and favorably of my petitions and praises, just like the scent of the sun block caused me to think fondly of the beach? On the other hand, I wonder if my prayers are ever like an unpleasant aroma before the Lord? When I am so focused on self, forgetting to praise Him or to seek His will and instead treating Him like a cosmic bellhop, I wonder if my prayers are more like a horrendous and stomach-turning stench?

My hope, like David’s, is that my prayers would be like incense before the Lord.

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