The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Holy smoke

Our prayers rise like incense before God

In this past century we’ve seen some of the most evil smoke that humans have created: pouring from Nazi concentration camps; blotting out the skies of Pearl Harbor; spewing from the fireball that consumed Dresden; ballooning like a grotesque mushroom from the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In our country, we’ve seen the smoke of racism as our cities burned: Watts in Los Angeles, the inner city of Detroit and the South Bronx in New York City. We watched the smoke roll down the streets of lower Manhattan on Sept. 11. In recent years, even weeks, we’ve seen the damage that fire and smoke does to our land and homes.

But there is also life-giving smoke: smoke that climbs to the stars from a campfire surrounded by family or friends; smoke from a grilled feast of barbecued burgers, ribs and toasted marshmallows. Such smoke can be holy. It acts like the pillar of cloud that led Israel in its exodus, leading us to see—no, leading us to smell—the presence of the extraordinary in the ordinary.

And there is holier smoke still: Using incense in worship has a long history in both Judaism and Christianity. The psalmist expresses the symbolism of incense and prayer: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2).

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